Teen Brain Development and Impact on Safe Driving
Function of Each Section of the Brain
The most important for driver functions, the frontal lobe monitors motor skills and emotional maturity. Lack of development can explain increased desire to take risks, and inability to perform complex maneuvers.
The section of the brain most responsible for memory skills and language recognition. An undeveloped or damaged temporal lobe could make learning road rules or motor skills more difficult.
This important sensory location has two primary functions: the integration of senses to form perceptions, and the representation of these perceptions in the world around us. Nearly all visual and audible actions involve the parietal lobe.
The center of visual perception system, the occipital lobe is essential to our ability to drive safely. An undeveloped or damaged occipital lobe can lead to hallucinations or blindness.
After the frontal lobe, the cerebellum has the most impact on motor skills essential for driving. It also monitors emotions related to fear and pleasure, which can inspire dangerous or reckless driving behavior.
Most known for essential body functions we rarely think about: the cardiac, respiratory, vasomotor centers. As the part of the brain that monitors breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, the medulla is least susceptible to damage.
It probably comes as no surprise that brain size does not equal intellectual or emotional maturity. A growing consensus among the scientific community about teen brain development has revealed the precise implications this fact has for teen drivers. Although the brain is 80 percent developed at adolescence, new research indicates that brain signals essential for motor skills and emotional maturity are the last to extend to the brain’s frontal lobe, which is responsible for many of the skills essential for driving.
The new research, first released by the National Institute of Mental Health, suggests that emotional immaturity, not inexperience, is the primary reason that teenage drivers are responsible for far more car accidents than any other age demographic. The most important aspect of brain development for drivers is the spread of white matter, the process that helps brain cells communicate more efficiently. The first and second stages of brain development, which occur before people become adults, over-produces brain cells, but lacks an adequate mechanism to process them.
When adults reach age 20, white matter begins to spread, from the back of the brain forward, usually completing this process between 25 and 30 years of age. The section of the brain most responsible for driving skills is the frontal lobe (shown above), which manages the body’s motor skills, emotional maturity, and aversion to taking risks. A dearth of white matter here explains why teenagers are much more likely to speed, disobey traffic signs, and lose control of their vehicles.
The white matter revelation has led some safety experts to suggest raising the minimum driving age to 18. But others have said this is an unnecessary change that would place an undue burden on parents. What’s more common is a push for the implementation of stricter graduated licensing laws, which would impose a multi-tiered licensing system to ease teenagers in to the responsibilities of driving without a parent in the car. The NHTSA recommends that each state implement a three-tiered graduated license system. This would begin with a learner’s permit, progress to an intermediate license with certain limitations, and conclude with an unrestricted license.
California’s graduated license program stipulates that teenagers can get their drivers permit at 15 years and six months, at which time they can only drive with a parent or guardian. Once the driver turns 16, he or she is eligible for a restricted license, with which the driver must be accompanied by an adult over 25 for the first twelve months and cannot drive between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am during that period. In 2006, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety estimated that the graduated license laws had already reduced accidents for 16 year-olds by 23 percent, preventing more than 8,000 accidents and injuries involving teenagers.