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Teen drivers at risk: It’s a physiological thing

Published November 7, 2012

Funny thing about last week’s National Teen Driver Safety Week in the U.S.: it overloaded my spam filters. Coinciding with the commendable initiative by The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the Research Institute, my inbox was inundated with messages of warning, dire statistics and horror stories with headlines that read like alternate titles for the ABC Afterschool Special of the Week.

Most of them, it turned out, weren’t really teen safety news items but pitches for one vaguely related fix or another: why this computer program/peer mentoring program/set of scary videos/lucky rabbit’s foot holds a solution so magical that you can hardly believe it only costs $29.95.

Tempted, I didn’t buy a thing.

But the statistics are grim. Not in that the numbers are so very high- statistically, any given teenager has a very slim chance of dying in a car accident. But the statistics do clearly show that many of the teenagers who do die in car accidents do so needlessly and senselessly. Of course, I’m not suggesting that any traffic death is necessary or sensible. But there are such things as blown tires and icy roads and the cold indifference of random chance, and we all accept these implicitly when we head out onto the road as unlikely but possible; acceptable risk. But the factors affecting teen drivers’ accident rates, and the mortality rate from these accidents, don’t fall into the categories of acceptable risks.

But we’ll get to those in a second. First, a sampling from statistical data on teen driving:

- Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, killing more than 5,000 every year.

- Teenagers account for between 12 and 15 per cent of all the drivers involved in fatal crashes (but are only 5-6 per cent of all drivers).

- The fatal crash rate of 16-19-year-olds is four times higher than that of drivers 20 and older.

- At age 16, the fatal crash rate is 40 per cent higher than it is at 18 and 30 per cent higher than it is at 19.

- Of teenagers killed in car crashes in 2009, 77 per cent of drivers and 56 per cent of passengers were not wearing a seatbelt.

- Of teen drivers killed in car crashes in 2009, 31 per cent had been drinking.

When you look at this data and then the minimum driving ages for most industrialized countries in the world, you understand why the U.S. and Canada don’t have a lot of company in allowing 16-year-olds to drive. Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Isle of Man, Guam, the Philippines, Egypt, and Zimbabwe also grant licenses at age 16, and in Tunisia you can drive at 14. But that’s it. That’s our company. It makes for a pretty lonely G-16 Summit, I can tell you. For most of the rest of the world, the minimum driving age is 18 or higher – a few allow supervised driving at 17, but you are not a real bona fide fully-fledged driver until you are 18 years old.

And why not? Because they understand what we apparently don’t: that although many of the behaviours associated with teen driving fatalities are completely avoidable, such as drunk driving, risk-taking, distraction, etc., some of their underlying causes are not. For instance:

A) The part of the brain that controls risk-taking and decision-making isn’t fully developed until, on average, age 21. If it seems like no matter what you say, teenagers just can’t fully comprehend the risks they’re taking or the consequences of their actions, it’s not because of some mysterious affliction; most teens are physiologically incapable of said comprehension. We all laughingly say things like “Kids these days, they think they’re going to live forever,” but it’s no joke. On some level, they do think that. There’s quite a bit of science behind it, as attentively discussed recently on The Nature of Things: Surviving the Teenage Brain. Turns out, wild and reckless behavior is actually an evolutionary advantage, because without it, no one would take the bold step of leaving the comfort and safety of their parents’ homes to make their way in the wide world. Or, you know, cook on an open fire, take on a mammoth with a pointy stick, or ride a raft to Australia. However, natural selection is somewhat in conflict with the relatively new and completely unnatural process of hopping into a 2-ton box of motorized metal and hurling along at faster-then-walking.

B) The ability to make the rapid eye movements required to monitor the entire driving environment, and to process the incoming visual information, is also less developed in younger drivers and only develops as they get older but as they gain more driving experience. So on a purely physiological level, teens really do need extended periods of supervised driving before their visual acuity is up to the task, their reactions reflexive.

C) Teenagers have significantly less ability to multitask than older drivers do. So while we talk about reducing the causes of distraction, like various flashing and beeping gadgets, it’s a fact that any external stimulus in the driving environment is going to be harder for a teenaged brain to handle.

One piece of positive information to round this all off: though these statistics are indeed grim, they’re also less grim than they were the year before – and the year before that, and the year before that. In fact, teen driving fatalities have been falling since 2000, largely due to some well-thought-out, well-researched interventions developed and deployed since then.

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