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Stiffened Penalties for Nighttime Teen Driving Associated With Fewer Fatal Crashes

June 17, 2015

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of teenage deaths in the United States and globally, and drowsy driving accounts for one out of five of those deaths.  Young people, who are especially vulnerable to sleep deficiency, are responsible for most fatigue-related crashes.

In 2007, a series of regulations for young drivers was introduced in Massachusetts, which included more stringent penalties for unsupervised nighttime driving by 16 and 17 year old novice drivers, and mandated drowsy driving education.  To evaluate the impact of these regulations on teenage drivers, HMS DSM researchers examined the rate of motor vehicle crashes in junior operators (16-17 years) compared to older age groups (18-19 years and 20 years or above) in the one year prior to, and five years after implementation.

Results of the research, published by Health Affairs in its June 2015 issue, found that the rate of crashes involving fatal and incapacitating injury among drivers age 16-17 decreased by 40 percent after the regulations were enacted.  Overall, police-reported crashes decreased in these junior operators by 19 percent, and nighttime crashes decreased by 29 percent.  Access Health Affairs article here.

“We know that teenaged drivers are more vulnerable to performance impairment due to sleep deprivation than older people.  Our research shows that restricting unsupervised nighttime driving until age 18 years, with significant penalties for violating the law, contributed to a significant reduction in the crash rate in junior operators, and importantly, reduced crashes that occurred at night, and those that caused serious injury,” said lead author Shantha M. W. Rajaratnam, Lecturer in Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Associate Neuroscientist with the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders, Departments of Medicine and Neurology, Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH).

“The 40 percent reduction in fatal and incapacitating injury crashes that we observed for teen drivers has been sustained for five years following passage of this law.  The steep decline of nighttime crashes demonstrates that tough penalties for violations of the nighttime driving restrictions for 16- and 17-year-old drivers are effective for preventing crashes and injury among teen drivers,” added Charles Czeisler, chief of the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at BWH and senior study author. 

Additional study collaborators include  Christopher P. Landrigan, Wei Wang, Rachel Kaprielian and Richard T. Moore.

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