One might imagine the vigour of youth would allow young men to shrug off the effects of a lack of sleep. In fact, a new study on driving performance documents that young men are particularly vulnerable to the effects of sleepiness, far more than older men.
Ashleigh Filtness and his colleagues recruited 20 healthy young men (average age 23) and 20 healthy older men (average age 67) to complete two early afternoon driving challenges in a full-size simulator. One of the monotonous two-hour drives was completed after a normal night’s sleep, as confirmed by a wrist actimeter that records nocturnal movement. The other two-hour drive was performed after a previous night’s sleep of just five hours. The participants weren’t allowed to consume alcohol for 36 hours before either test.
The researchers were mainly interested in lane drifts, in which all four wheels of the car left the lane the driver was supposed to be in. As you’d expect, these increased in the later stages of both the drives. Both groups of men also drifted more on the drive that followed less sleep. But the key finding was that the young men were affected far more drastically by a lack of sleep. For instance, in the last 30 minutes of the drive that followed a five-hour sleep, the young men averaged just over six lane drifts compared with fewer than two by the older men. This difference was also reflected in other measures – the younger men reported feeling more sleepy after a lack of sleep than the older men and this was confirmed by their brainwave recordings.
The new findings are consistent with previous night time studies in simulators and on the road that showed young male and female participants struggled more than older participants to maintain safe driving performance. They also help make sense of road accident data that show sleep-related incidents predominantly involve young male drivers.
However there are some complications in interpreting the new research. For example, it’s likely the older drivers had more driving experience. Are they less vulnerable to sleepiness or simply better drivers? The researchers state only that both groups were experienced, with all participants having driven for over two years, more than three hours per week. Another complication acknowledged by the researchers is that young men typically sleep for longer than older men. This means the five-hour sleep limit condition was a greater departure from routine for the younger men.
A problem not mentioned in the paper is the potential influence of “stereotype threat” – whereby a fear of fulfilling stereotypes can undermine the performance of stereotyped groups. A researcher was present in the driving simulator room and it’s possible the young men were aware of the negative attitudes commonly felt towards young male drivers and were affected as a result. A final weakness is the use of a simulator – the participants would have known any errors were inconsequential.
“The greater vulnerability of [young men] … to sleep restriction potentially puts them at a greater driving risk under these circumstances, and may help further explain the relatively high proportion of young men being responsible for serious sleep related road collisions,” the researchers said.
Filtness, A., Reyner, L., and Horne, J. (2012). Driver sleepiness—Comparisons between young and older men during a monotonous afternoon simulated drive. Biological Psychology, 89 (3), 580-583 DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2012.01.002