Why teens drive that way, and how to keep them safer

July 6, 2016

We know that teen drivers are more accident-prone than any other group of motorists. We tend to think that their troubles behind the wheel are linked to their lack of experience, but researchers say that there may be more to it than that.

Specifically, they lay much of the blame on the developing teenage brain.

Emily Falk from the University of Pennsylania's Communication Neuroscience Lab explains that teenagers are more attuned to social cues than older people. They spend a lot of time interacting with their peers, trying to find their place in the complex social hierarchy of high school.

That, in turn, can make them more dangerous drivers, especially when they've got teenage passengers in the car. Surrounded by their peers, focused on fitting in to a clique, they might forget to focus on the road. Or, they might be goaded into taking risks. 

However, two teens in a car doesn't necessarily an accident make. Ruth Shults of the Centers for Disease Control explains that the odds of teenage drivers getting into trouble on the road increase when combined with other driving challenges. So, two teens in a car? Not necessarily a big deal. Two teens in a car at night? A bigger deal. Two teens in a car at night during a thunderstorm? You get the picture.

The sex of the driver also plays a role. Bruce Simons-Morton, who helped organize a landmark study on teen driving habits, says that male drivers are three times more likely to speed than their female peers.

And like your parents always warned you, a teen's friends can be a bad influence--or a good one. Simons-Morton partnered with the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute for a study that found that if a teen had seen a peer drive in a reckless manner, he would do the same. (Conversely, if the teen had seen a peer drive safely, he'd follow suit.) Brain scans carried out in a separate study revealed that teens who are most concerned about being part of a group are most at risk of mimicking other teens' driving behavior, be it good or bad.

Fixing the problem

As with any problem that requires changing human behavior, the solution in this case involves regulation and education.

For the regulation component, experts agree that graduated driver's license programs ought to be more widely deployed. By preventing teens from driving at dangerous times--for example, after dark--graduated licenses can reduce the chance of things going wrong.

On the education side, most believe that part of the solution involves peer training--that is, asking teens to support their friends' safe driving decisions. Without that encouragement, the allure of driving dangerously may be too strong for teens to resist.

The one thing that's crystal clear is that the issue must be addressed. According to the CDC, auto accidents remain the leading cause of death for young people. In fact, preliminary data suggests that in 2015, fatalities involving young drivers jumped 10 percent compared to 2014 totals. 

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