Forget about those white-knuckle trips around the neighborhood as you helped your teen learn how to smoothly apply the gas and avoid locking the brakes. All those near misses as your new driver forgot to check the blind spot before changing lanes? Forget about those, too.
The studies are in and the results are clear – teenagers are the most attentive drivers. Sit back, relax, and get ready to hand over the car keys after you read these studies:
1. The Journal of Neuroscience Report
There are now cold, hard facts to support your teen’s argument that he is actually a better driver than you are. An entire team of scientists studied how aging changes the way a certain part of the brain, called the middle temporal visual area or MT, functions.
When a person is young, this part of the brain screens out unimportant background movement so that the person can pay attention to what’s really important – items moving in the foreground. In ancient times, this let man see both predators and food sources better than if he was paying attention to everything all at once.
As humans age, this part of the brain slows down, and background “noise” becomes more of a problem. So, as you can see, teens really are capable of paying more attention than any other age group – but it still doesn’t mean their brain power makes them capable of safely texting while driving.
2. Who Says Teenagers Never Learn?
Studies conducted by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration closely examine the number of fatal accidents each year. On the surface, the numbers look grim – 5,864 fatal accidents involved teen drivers (aged 15 to 20) in 2008.
However, there is some good news. This same group of drivers has shown a dramatic improvement since 1998: In the time period between 1998 and 2008, teen-driver involvement in fatal accidents dropped by 27% and teen-driver fatalities fell by 20%.
3. Graduated Licensing Makes for Better Drivers
Graduated licensing laws that turn new drivers loose slowly instead of simply handing them an unlimited license to drive and wreak havoc are improving teen driving behavior and statistics. Each state has its own flavor of this policy, but most include these limitations:
- A minimum time period is required between getting a learner’s permit and a full license to allow for a longer period of supervised driving.
- A minimum number of hours of supervised driving are required before qualifying for a full license.
- For the first few months or until the driver reaches a certain age, late-night driving and the number of teen passengers are restricted.
- Stiff penalties for seat-belt violations and cell-phone use.
More serious penalties for younger drivers could also have an impact on the number of accidents this age group has. In some states, one serious mistake can mean the teen won’t get the car keys again until he turns 18. In some cases, the penalty lasts even longer. If they get caught drinking under age – even if there’s not a car in sight – same penalty.
Numbers Never Lie
When you look at the raw numbers, the picture isn’t great for the teen driver. Studies conducted by two of the most respected authorities on the subject, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety both agree that this group is the most dangerous of any age group.
To further illustrate this fact, drivers aged 15 to 19 account for only 8.5% of the American population, but they are responsible for 12% of all deaths occurring due to passenger-vehicle accidents. In fact, car accidents are the biggest cause of death for teenagers – whether they’re behind the wheel or just along for the drive. In 2008 alone, 2739 teens aged 15 or older were killed in accidents and 228,000 were seriously injured.
And – The Other Part of the Brain
To give teens credit, it’s not all their fault. While the MT region of the brain is helping teenagers focus, their still-developing pre-frontal cortex is to blame for their risk-taking tendencies and lack of focus. This is the part of the brain that’s responsible for those complicated thoughts that make us mature adults – you know: the ability to form a plan and stick with it, to consider the consequences before acting, or basically to actually stop and think for a minute before jumping off the proverbial cliff.
Because your teen’s pre-frontal cortex doesn’t finish developing until he is well into his 20s, you can expect a wild ride for those teenage driving years. The only good news is that most teens finally outgrow this stage. The only question is whether you’ll survive along with them.
Although teenage drivers are showing some improvement, this won’t be much comfort if your teen is involved in a serious accident. The biggest problems with teen drivers include lack of experience, poor judgment, and refusing to wear a seat belt, but there is a more serious concern, as well.
According to MADD, alcohol is a contributing factor in one out of every three teen crashes. Before turning your kid loose on the road, have a serious talk with him or her about all of the responsibilities that come with the privilege to drive.