The Department of Motor Vehicles said she was good to go. But after passing the written and road tests and getting her driver’s license, Emily Wensberg, 18, still wasn’t sure about driving. “I was a very nervous driver,” the Boston University freshman says. “Even after I got my license, I was very unconfident.”
Wensberg did what relatively few people do: She enrolled in yet another driving course. That daylong skills session in New Hampshire, called Street Survival, started with a presentation about the psychology and physics of driving. Instructors then had her practice driving in straight lines, circles, and figure eights around traffic cones, braking hard at times, while they talked her through the car’s reactions.
The instructors confirmed what Wensberg had suspected: Driving is not an automatic process. “It’s easy to feel overconfident when you’re driving,” she says. “I think it’s a big responsibility. You’re suddenly in control of this huge vehicle.”
Through the course, Wensberg found out what professional drivers know: To handle the roads, you need a firm grip on how both your vehicle and your brain work.
It’s Not You Until It’s You
In 2007, the World Health Organization (WHO) cited traffic crashes as the leading cause of death in people ages 10 to 24. “Road traffic crashes are not ‘accidents,'” Margaret Chan, WHO director-general, said in a statement. “We need to challenge the notion that they are unavoidable.”
Need proof? Last summer in Canandaigua, N.Y., Bailey Goodman, 17, fatally drove into an oncoming vehicle. She and friends were in a caravan, on the way to a cottage to celebrate high school graduation. No alcohol was involved. But her phone sent out text messages around the time of the crash.
Four of Bailey’s friends died with her. Crashes can injure or kill others–passengers, people in other vehicles, or pedestrians. Teen drivers kill other people five times as often as elderly drivers do, according to a five-year study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
You may hear crash stories and feel empathy. Then you distance yourself from them, as if bad luck were catching. You might rationalize that you’re too good of a driver to get in an accident, according to Phil Berardelli, author of Safe Young Drivers: A Guide for Parents and Teens.
Berardelli teaches driving skills to fill in where driver’s ed leaves off. When he addresses groups, he cites a 53-month period in which U.S. troop deaths in Iraq numbered 2,600; during the same time span, more than 26,000 people ages 15 to 19 died in vehicle crashes “every bit as suddenly and violently.” Shocking? Sure. But part of Berardelli’s strategy is to get parents to think about what comes naturally to teens–and how that might work against them.
An Owner’s Manual for the Brain
Year after year, vehicle crashes take more teen lives than AIDS, drugs, guns, and suicide combined. “It’s an enduring national health crisis,” says Berardelli. And it’s preventable.
Now, researchers are turning to the natural progression of the brain for answers. For more than 15 years, Dr. Jay Giedd, a principal investigator at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), has been scanning brain activity in young people. What he and his colleagues have learned about how the brain morphs during adolescence helps explain the risks teens encounter behind the wheel.
According to the scientists at NIMH, young drivers have a lot going on “upstairs.” New connections are forming between neurons, the nerve cells in the brain. Useless connections are being weeded out.
Researchers can actually color code those changes. White matter, made up of fatty myelin sheaths that insulate neurons, increases. Gray matter–neurons without myelin–starts to thin. The “white” thickens through age 40. The result? High school students have fewer but more rapid connections than, say, their parents.
As people become adults, different parts of the brain finish growing at different times. The last section reaches maturity at age 25 or so, posing a danger for new drivers: The frontal lobes that act like brakes for thrill seeking and risk taking aren’t ready at age 16. The younger the driver, the more likely he or she might drive after drinking “just once”–or head down the road without buckling up.
Meanwhile, the amygdala, a small mass of gray matter associated with emotional reactions, is in overdrive, helping teens read situations. Emotions kick into gear more often, which affects driving. Young drivers might speed up when nervous or gun the car when angry.
To complicate matters, the pineal gland, at the base of the brain, is slow to release the sleep-inducing chemical melatonin in teens. Therefore, it’s natural for new drivers to stay up late and, as a consequence, drive when they haven’t had enough sleep. That’s bad news: A sleep-deprived driver is as impaired as someone with a .08 percent blood alcohol content–the legal limit in every state. In July and August, an average of more than 100 16- and 17-year-olds die in drowsy-driving accidents, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.