Did you know that the first 18 months after teens get their license are the most dangerous? It’s due to the fact of inexperience and a tendency for distraction. The teen brain is not fully developed until at least age 25. 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, 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 Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia had published this:
The overwhelming majority (75 percent) of serious teen driver crashes are due to "critical errors," with the three common errors accounting for nearly half of these crashes: lack of scanning that is needed to detect and respond to hazards, going too fast for road conditions, and being distracted by something inside or outside of the vehicle. Making matters worse: The majority of newly licensed teen drivers exit the learner’s permit period with significant skill deficits, leading to a much higher risk of crashing compared with more experienced drivers. The most common types of crashes involve left turns, rear-end events, and running off the road. While some of these errors may be due to a lack of driving experience, they may also be related to the ongoing development of the frontal lobe of the brain during adolescence.
The frontal lobe is associated with a set of higher-level cognitive processes called “executive functions” that give individuals the ability to make decisions, monitor and control their behavior and to manage complex tasks, such as driving. Three of these executive functions are crucial to safe driving:
*working memory – the ability to maintain and manipulate pieces of information in the moment and underlies the ability to multitask
*inhibitory control – the ability to filter and resist irrelevant or distracting information and to suppress impulsive behavior
*set-shifting – the ability to sustain or shift attention and responses with changing task demands or different rules in different settings
My first experience learning how to drive happened to be on one of those Nintendo 64 gaming consoles, where each individual game is the size of brick and you shove it into the console. Occasionally having the blow off the dust in the connecting piece of the “brick”, in order for the game to work. In my humble opinion, it was the next best thing after Atari. Mario Cart gave my brother and I the hand/eye coordination that’s consistent with learning how to drive.
Both my parents worked/work for General Motors. My mother, every 3 months, brought home a company vehicle. Cool right? She would bring home SUV’s, trucks, at one time there was an electric hybrid Cadillac coupe, vans, and standard size vehicles such as malibu’s. I’ll never forget when I turned 15 years old, I had passed the course to obtain my permit. Within two weeks, my mother brought home this beautiful, bright white, Hummer H2! It’s one of my top 3 best vehicles I’ve ever driven. Bare in mind, this H2 possessed a 6.2L V8 engine, it’s curb weight was roughly 6,600 lbs, and 393 horsepower around 2200-3500 RPM. Compare that to my current vehicle, which is a 2019 Chevy Equinox LT which I affectionately nicknamed my “go-cart on steroids”, it possesses 1.5 L, 4 cylinder turbo engine, 3,200 lbs of curb weight, and 170 hp at 5,600 RPM. It’s pretty much a comparison to David & Goliath. It was a blast to drive but it also taught me how to steer on the road and in parking lots, because it was so wide.
Fast forward the final year of my teens and officially had my first accident. I was coming home from Frankenmuth as I was a judge for my brother’s debate team. I was in the center lane on I-75, on cruise control, traveling at 75 MPH. In the fast lane, on the left side of my vehicle, was the gorgeous BMW 3-series, traveling at 80-85 MPH. Not even 30 seconds after I had seen the driver pass me, they immediately slammed on their brakes. I looked at the car then turned my head to see in front of me and my headlights beamed white to an outline of 4 legs, body, and “BOOM”. It was instantaneous.
I pulled over, flipped on my hazards, and started crying. I quite literally thought I killed someone’s dog who had wondered onto the freeway and how I could have done such a thing. Didn’t help that 5 months prior to that, my mother had lost her battle with leukemia. My emotions were already at an all time high and running wild. I called the guy I was dating at the time and he calmed me down enough to help me make a phone call to my Dad. I remember the cop and my Dad showing up roughly at the same time. This cop was awesome by the way; she walked over to my passenger side, I rolled down my window, and she proceeded to say,
”Are you ok?”
Of course, me sniffling and mascara running down my face, replies,
”sniff, sniff: No".”
It was traumatizing. The cop proceeded to tell me that I had hit a deer and that I had hit hard enough that went into the concrete medium, head first. It didn’t feel a thing. Which in turn, made me emotional, again! That accident had cost roughly $1200 due to damaged sheet metal on the hood, the dome headlight on the 2003 Jeep Liberty, driver side, to be readjusted in it’s mount as it had been tilted downward, the turning signal on the same side was nowhere to be found, and the plastic fender had to be replaced. I’ve since then, thankfully, have not had an accident.
Moral of the story? Practice makes perfect, accidents do happen and the more experience behind the wheel makes the world of difference for teen drivers. Learning to drive in a classroom setting was one thing however, the practicality of practice in a parking lot or the back roads of the city you live in can make the biggest difference, upon receiving a permit. Growth for a teenager is imperative and while a teenager brain develops, so should the growth in gaining a new skillset. 15-17 years of age, in my opinion, is the perfect time in one’s life to learn this skill.