Every parent will tell you that teenagers seem to come from a different planet at times and now scientists are coming up with solid proof that teenage brains are different.
And, that this can have a significant impact on their driving and their safety.
According to the road safety charity Brake, road crashes are the biggest killer of young people in the UK and worldwide¹, and researchers now believe much of the cause is rooted in the adolescent brain.
Competing demands on our attention
Despite popular opinion, current research is proving that our brains don’t multitask; instead we have to switch rapidly between competing demands on our attention. This means that when driving we need, at the very least, to move between:
- The road e.g. is the car in front about to stop?
- Control of the car e.g. how fast am I going?
- Status of the car e.g. should I change gear?
But this is particularly hard for teenagers because they lack experience in switching their attention from one area to another, and research from the US shows that younger drivers’ brains don’t focus on the right places at the right times², so they can miss warning signs and find themselves unable to prevent a crash. This is made worse as the part of the brain that helps us to coordinate and control our attention, the pre-frontal cortex (PFC), is not fully developed in teenagers.
The research demonstrates why it is so important for young drivers to have as few distractions as possible, and especially, that mobile phones must always be turned off, or on silent and out of reach, whilst driving. This short film by Volkswagen shows it vividly.
But eating and drinking, smoking, loud music, and even using your sat nav, have also been shown to be dangerously distracting³. See our Guide to driver distractions.
The bottom line is you need your brain to drive and if you’re using it for anything other than driving then your mind is not fully on the road.⁴
Teenagers’ brain chemistry also means that they actively seek out the company and approval of friends. In fact, anthropologists have found that virtually all the world’s cultures recognise adolescence as a distinct period in which young people look for novelty, excitement and their peers.⁵ It is increasingly being recognised that there are good evolutionary reasons for this, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it is a potentially lethal mix when combined with driving.
An American study⁶ used a driving style test to assess what effect peer pressure has on risk taking amongst young drivers and they found that young people consistently took greater risks when their friends were watching.
Sadly, crash statistics confirm the research. Brake says that 16-17 year-old drivers are up to four times more likely to die in a crash when they are carrying young passengers than when they are driving alone; they are 62% less likely when carrying older adult passengers, indicating it is peer pressure rather than simply the presence of passengers that raises the risk.⁷ Other research by Cardiff University looked at crashes involving young drivers in Great Britain and found that 24.4% of them occurred with a 15 to 24-year old passenger in the car.⁸
How can parents help?
Whether your teenager is the young driver, or the passenger, help them avoid giving, or accepting, lifts from their peers.
You can make a voluntary Safe Driving Agreement⁹ with your teenager. These set out certain conditions for the first year or so of driving and are popular in many other countries. For example, a teenager can drive the family car as long as they agree not to give lifts to friends for the first six or twelve months (even longer at night when the worst incidents often happen). You can find out more about a Safe Driving Agreement at http://www.rospa.com/roadsafety/info/youngdrivers.pdf
It’s important to teach teenagers that, if they do accept a lift, not only do they need to control their own behaviour as a passenger but they must also speak up and challenge any inappropriate driving.
Understanding differences in brain chemistry can help parents to encourage teenagers. So they can find their own strategies to minimise distractions and keep their mind fully on the road.
  http://teensafedriving.org/blog/how-brain-development-affects-teens-driving/
 http://www.brake.org.uk/info-resources/info-research/road-safety-factsheets/15-facts-a-resources/facts/488-young-drivers-the-hard-facts and Young drivers at higher risk of crashing when carrying young passengers, AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 2012