The Teenage Brain and 100 Deadly Days of Summer

As school ends and teenagers get behind the wheel more often, many express concerns about the safety of teenage driving

Teenage drivers beware

Out of nearly 220 million licensed drivers in the US, more than 5%, or almost 12 million, fall into the category of young drivers, that is, motorists aged 15-20. Sadly, in the same age group, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. In 2015 alone, car accidents claimed the lives of 1,886 young drivers and left about 195,00 injured. In other words, about 6 teenagers in the U.S. die from motor vehicle injuries every day. The statistics become bleaker still during the summer break period when young drivers are most likely to get behind the wheel. In the period between Memorial Day and Labor Day, which is sometimes gruesomely referred to as the 100 deadly days of summer, fatal crashes involving adolescent drivers go up by 16% in comparison with other days of the year, resulting in an average of 10 fatalities a day, according to the statistics provided by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.  What are some factors that make teen driving so dangerous? Should additional legal measures be taken to ensure that the accident rates drop?

Natural risk takers

On the whole, teenagers are more likely than adults to engage in risky behaviors while driving. For example, a survey conducted in 2015 showed that only 61% of teenagers wear seatbelts while driving with other passengers in the car – this makes them one of the demographics least likely to buckle up. According to data provided by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, not wearing seatbelts was a factor in 60% of fatal teenage crashes. Distracted driving is likewise a much bigger problem among young drivers than among other age groups. AAA reports that research based on crash videos concluded that distraction was involved in teen crashes in almost 6 out of 10 times! In 15% of those cases, teenage drivers were distracted by other passengers, while 12% of distracted driving instances were related to using a cellphone. AAA also notes that in the moments leading up to a crash, distracted teens were looking down at the screen of their mobile phones, taking their eyes completely off the road, rather than simply having a telephone conversation which in itself can be dangerous enough. AAA observes that this is a disturbing trend that has emerged only in the recent years. Moreover, studies show that young drivers are more likely to speed, underestimate dangerous situations, and make critical errors than older, more experienced drivers. For example, data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System maintained by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in 2014, 36% of young males aged 15-20 who were involved in a fatal accident were speeding at the time of the crash and 24% were under the influence of alcohol. In the demographics of teenagers and young adults aged 16-20, 17% of fatal motor vehicle crashes involved drivers with BAC level of .08% or higher.

How the law helps

Looking at all this data, it is hard not to ask what it is exactly that makes teens so likely to engage in a whole plethora of dangerous and irresponsible behaviors. Is it only lack of experience or proper preparation for driving? Certainly, this was one of the assumptions behind the introduction of the Graduated Driver Licensing laws, adopted by all the states and Washington, DC. These laws divide the process of acquiring a driver’s license by teens into 3 stages. The idea is that young adults get more supervision when they start to drive, with more driving privileges being granted as they age, use the car, and gain more experience before they can acquire a full driving license. In the stage of Massachusetts, teenagers can enter into a GDL program when they are 16, with the permission of a parent or a guardian. After passing a theoretical test, a young driver is given a learner’s permit. With the permit, a teenager is only allowed to drive accompanied by a licensed driver of at least 21 years of age and a minimum of 1 year driving experience. The next stage is to apply for a Junior Operator license. These are issued to those of at least 16 and a half years of age and who have held a learner’s permit for at least 6 months. After completing a driver education program and a certain amount of hours of supervised driving, a Junior Operator licence will be granted. Some of the restrictions for a young driver holding the Junior license is that he or she cannot drive with passengers younger than 18 who are not their immediate family members if a licensed driver (of at least 21 years of age with a minimum of 1 year driving experience) does not occupy the front passenger seat. In order to be approved for a full driving license, a person must be at least 18 years old.

The perils of the teenage brain

Graduated Driver Licensing laws do, in fact, contribute to fewer accidents involving teenage drivers. According to CDC, among 16-year-olds, participation in the GDL programs is associated with a reduction of fatal crashes by anywhere from 26% to 41% and a reduction of overall crashes by between 16% and 22%. Nevertheless, some argue that these laws are not enough and that the age limit for obtaining any kind of driving permit should be raised. The rational? The teenage brain. According to scientific research, the teenage brain is still a developing brain, with key areas responsible for control, planning, and reasoning, not fully mature. How exactly is the brain of a teenager different from the brain of an adult? First of all, the frontal lobe, which is the area responsible for goal-oriented and rational thinking, in adolescents is still less developed than the amygdala – the region responsible for more instinctive reactions such as fear or aggression. This might explain why teenagers are more likely to act on impulse and engage in risky behavior while driving. Moreover, other studies have shown that a gradual development of another part of the brain during teen years – the lateral prefrontal cortex – may be the reason why teenagers are more prone to succumb to peer pressure and tend to drive more dangerously when accompanied by other adolescents. ()

How to make the roads safer for teens

Does this mean that states should enforce a stricter age limit for obtaining a driving permit and license? Some people do advocate raising the minimum driving age to 18. Others point to the fact the Graduate Driver Licensing programs are doing good job in limiting teenage motor vehicle accidents already. Even so, AAA recommends that states review and potentially strengthen the GDL laws “to provide as much protection as possible for teens”. The Association also stresses the role that parents have to ensure their teenage kids are driving safely – and not only by being cautious and reasonable about their children’s access to a family’s cars but also by being positive role models and setting good examples of responsible driving themselves. Parents should also make their children aware of the dangers of the 100 deadly days of summer for teenage drivers, and remind them regularly about how unsafe distracted driving can be. Ultimately, there is not much to be done about the number of young drivers on the roads in the summer. Each family can make sure, however, that all possible precautions are taken when their adolescent driver gets behind the wheel. After all, making sure that a teenager will strive to drive safely and responsibly will at the same time make the roads safer for everyone.