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Early school start times affect auto accident rates in Virginia

It is generally common knowledge that the less sleep people get, the less likely they are to be able to operate a motor vehicle safely. The drowsier people are, of course, the more likely they are to cause a car accident. While it seems that most parents and educators would agree with this, top school officials in Fairfax County appear reluctant to make changes on the issue. Throughout the Northern Virginia region, Fairfax schools have the earliest start times, making the roadways a potentially perilous place to be before classes start.

All drivers need adequate rest, but teen drivers in particular need around nine hours of sleep per night. With inadequate sleep affecting memory, performance and learning, it's no surprise that it can also greatly impair driving skills. Teens who have essentially woken-up before their natural sleep cycle has ended can cause a variety of hazards, from running a stop sign to rollovers to sparking a chain reaction that ends in a multi-vehicle accident.

Two-thirds of Fairfax teens are described as sleep deprived, defined as losing two or more hours of sleep time each evening. Even worse, school districts that start classes around 7:20 a.m., when many Fairfax schools start, tend to have higher crash rates among their young commuters. In response to this alarming state, local parent groups have started an organization called Start Later for Excellence in Education Proposal, or SLEEP. While the local school board concurs that later start times would increase safety, so far nothing substantial has been done to institute more safety-conscious class times.

While the medical community acknowledges the dangers of sleepy drivers, the law still holds drivers responsible for operating their cars safely at all times. Local residents injured in an auto accident need not wait for school board resolutions; there are legal means for holding drivers accountable for the injuries they cause, even unintentionally via drowsiness. While people can't stop tired drivers from getting behind the wheel, they can pursue compensation for the damage these drivers may cause.

Source: Virginia Connection Newspapers, "Commentary: teens deserve sleep before school," John Lovaas, June 19, 2013

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