The single biggest risk factor
Fifty-six percent of teen crash deaths occur between 6pm and 6am1. As reported by a 2010 study by Texas A&M Transportation Institute, this is primarily due to a combination of the visibility challenges caused by dark conditions, slower response time brought about by fatigue, and a lack of experience driving under such conditions. It is largely for these reasons that most states include a nighttime driving restriction in Graduated Driver License (GDL) laws. In most states with a GDL law, the nighttime restriction and a limit on the number of passengers allowed are the most widely implemented features of that law.
The problem of visibility:
- The average person’s field of vision is smaller without the aid of light, and glare from oncoming headlights can further limit the ability to see clearly and avoid hazards2.
- High Intensity lights are becoming more common. These lights are brighter to on-coming traffic and require your eyes to adjust faster3.
- It is more difficult to judge other vehicle’s speeds and distances at night.
- Dusk is the most dangerous time since your eyes are constantly having to adjust to more darkness4.
- Rural roadways can be especially dangerous at night due to higher numbers of unlit roadways. In 2015, the number of people who died in a fatal crash was 2.6 times higher in rural areas than in urban areas5.
- On average, 62% of fatal teen crashes occurred on rural roadways and an average of 53% of the fatal crashes occurred between 6 pm – 6 am6.
What to do about poor visibility:
- As always, wear your seat belt. The danger of driving at night should not be multiplied by being unsecured.
- Keep distractions to a minimum to keep your eyes and attention on the road.
- Turn headlights on at dusk and observe night driving safety as soon as the sun goes down3.
- Reduce your speed and increase your following distances. Don’t overdrive your headlights. You should be able to stop inside the illuminated area. If you can’t, you are creating a blind crash area in front of your vehicle3.
- Keep your headlights and windshield clean. A thin film of debris on your headlights can reduce your visibility significantly2.
- If an oncoming vehicle’s lights are too high, avoid glare by watching the right edge of the road and using it as a steering guide3.
- Have your headlights properly aimed. Misaimed headlights blind other drivers and reduce your ability to see the road3.
The problem of drowsy driving:
- Research suggests that teens should have 8 to 10 hours of sleep each night. Most teens do not get enough sleep — one study found that only 15% reported sleeping 8 1/2 hours on school nights6.
- Being awake for 18 hours is similar to having a blood alcohol concentration of .05 and .10 after 24 hrs. .08 is legally intoxicated for adults over 216.
- Young drivers have a higher risk of falling asleep behind the wheel6.
- Sleepiness or fatigue causes the following7:
- Impaired reaction time, judgment, and vision
- Problems with information processing and short-term memory
- Decreased performance, vigilance, and motivation
- Increased moodiness and aggressive behaviors
- A recent study (2015) found that individuals who have slept less than 2 hours in the prior 24 hours are too sleep deprived to get behind the wheel of a vehicle8.
- A recent survey found that teens report being “reluctant to miss out” and have an “always-on lifestyle” that can contribute to drowsy driving as they are getting less than six hours of sleep each night9.
- 70% of teens surveyed admitted to driving tired
- 50% reported actually falling asleep or nearly falling asleep at the wheel citing:
- A busy schedule: 43%
- Staying up late to do homework: 32%
- Staying up late for social activities: 24%
- Working late hours during the week: 20%
- Being tired or hung over from drinking/partying the night before: 10%
What to do about drowsy driving:
- Here are some signs of being tired and it’s time to pull over10:
- Difficulty focusing, frequent blinking and/or heavy eyelids
- Difficulty keeping daydreams at bay
- Trouble keeping your head up
- Drifting from your lane, swerving, tailgating and/or hitting rumble strips
- Inability to clearly remember the last few miles driven
- Missing exits or traffic signs
- Yawning repeatedly
- Feeling restless, irritable, or aggressive
- Before you drive, consider whether you are10:
- Sleep-deprived or fatigued (6 hours of sleep or less triples your risk)
- Suffering from sleep loss (insomnia) or poor quality sleep
- Driving long distances without proper rest breaks
- Driving through the night or when you would normally be asleep
- Taking medications that make you tired (cold tablets, antihistamines)
- Studying a lot or attending more activities than usual, which may be decreasing your sleep time
- Drinking even small amounts of alcohol
- Driving alone or on a long, rural, dark or boring road
What you can do to prevent falling asleep while driving10:
- Get a good night’s sleep before you hit the road. You’ll want to be alert for the drive, so be sure to get adequate sleep the night before you go
- Don’t be too rushed to arrive at your destination. Many drivers try to maximize the holiday weekend by driving at night or without stopping for breaks
- It’s better to allow the time to drive alert and arrive alive
- Use the buddy system. Just as you should not swim alone, avoid driving alone for long distances. A buddy who remains awake for the journey can take a turn behind the wheel and help identify the warning signs of fatigue
- Take a break every 100 miles or 2 hours. Do something to refresh yourself like getting a snack, switching drivers, or going for a run
- Take a nap—find a safe place to take a 15 to 20-minute nap, if you think you might fall asleep. Be cautious about excessive drowsiness after waking up
- Avoid alcohol and medications that cause drowsiness as a side-effect
- Avoid driving at times when you would normally be asleep
- Consume caffeine. The equivalent of two cups of coffee can increase alertness for several hours
Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 2015
Texas A&M Transportation Institute
National Safety Council
National Highway Traffic Safety, Rural/Urban Comparison of Traffic Fatalities, Traffic Safety Facts, 2015 data, DOT HS 812 393 https://crashstats.nhtsa.dot.gov/Api/Public/ViewPublication/812393
National highway traffic safety, Query of FARS database
National Sleep Foundation
National Sleep Foundation: https://sleepfoundation.org/sleep-news/expert-consensus-panel-concludes-missing-night-sleep-renders-drivers-unfit
Liberty Mutual & SADD: https://www.libertymutualgroup.com/about-lm/news/news-release-archive/articles/new-study-finds-teens-fear-of-missing-out-is-proving-to-be-dangerous
After the bars had shut, after the clubs had closed, when the last revellers had straggled home and the streets lay empty and black, then I would go driving. It was spring, and I would wind the window down, let the night-time in, let the air carry all that damp green wildness.
My love of night driving began in my teens: first as a passenger, riding home on a Friday night, heading out to the coast on early dates, holding hands at traffic lights. In those days, nothing seemed to embody our sweet new freedom more than driving after hours, driving with our music loud, driving with no particular place to go.
Later, I drove alone. It seemed the night enhanced the simple pleasure of solitude, and in the quiet of the empty car I focused upon the pressure of steering wheel beneath fingertips, the pull between clutch and accelerator, the glide from third to fourth. It seemed to free my mind.
There is, after all, something liberating about driving in the dark. The streets lie largely empty – little traffic, few buses, just the occasional pedestrian along the way. Lit only by the moon or the odd street light, the landscape acquires a kind of hyperrealism: roads turn liquorice black, fields stretch broader, flatter than in daylight hours, the sky looks inkier, and on the verges, in the woods, the leaves hang greener, glassier.
Since those first teenage excursions I have taken night drives all over this land and others – to Camber Sands and Glastonbury, round London, up to Wales, through Mississippi, Massachusetts, Maine. But that spring I drove the lanes around where I grew up – through Roby Mill, Appley Bridge and Parbold. Sometimes I would drive on past my house and out to Lathom and Hoscar, out to where the land lay flat and marshy and still. These were roads I had known all of my life, only now they looked different, as hushed and peaceful as a familiar friend asleep.
I would drive through the villages, around estates and cul-de-sacs, past farms and terraces. The houses all stood silent and sturdy with windows curtained. From time to time I would spy a light on in an upstairs bedroom, sometimes the sound of voices raised – a baby crying, a couple squalling, a TV turned up loud.
There is a peculiarity to the look of front gardens at night, the sudden strange futility of their neatness, their garden fences, rockeries, gnomes; how tidy stand their daffodils, how primly paved their paths.
As I drove I would turn the radio up, find a show playing requests for all the lovers strung out across the wide night. I loved feeling I was at the heart of some strange convergence, a meeting of the natural and the man-made – the landscape and the night sky and the radio and this automobile spinning along the roads.
Most night drives I headed to Lees Lane, a back road that wound through the fields of Dalton. It mostly ran at 60mph in those days, a hazardous route of twists and turns and blind bends, made all the more perilous in the springtime when the hedgerows spilled over one another, and the trees arced overhead, and on verges the grass grew tall and unruly. I would loop around and around to drive this road over and over, driving fast, kissing the speed limit, feeling the brush of branches against the car. And as the road swooped low, pitched and plunged, I felt an exhilarating wildness in my veins – like a swallow, like a mistle thrush, like a bird of spring, buffeted by the sweet night air.