Save Our Teen Drivers

Advocating for driver's education changes. Educating the public on the problem. Finding a solution that saves lives.

“What were you thinking!?” They weren’t

Posted by lapearce on June 9, 2009

We’ve all been there. A teen does something irrational, risky, or just plain stupid and we yell “WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!?” What we get back in response is a blank stare, an “I don’t know” or a shrug. Infuriating, right? Well guess what mom and dad, they weren’t thinking.

Research on human brain development shows that the part of the brain that correctly evaluates risk doesn’t develop in females until around 23 and males until about 26. Why else would boys jump off ramps on dirt bikes? Because they don’t know that it is dangerous. In Steve Wickham’s research he found:

“The “higher road” of thinking is not well developed in adolescents so why do we expect them to reason, and analyse details well? They simply do not perceive and handle risks well. Careful, mature and sensitive supervision is critical.”

Wickham goes on to say that without supervision teens will often times take part in risky behavior, even if they realize it may not be the right choice:

Teens are often frustrated when required to make decisions based on odds or risk, and tend to do “things” anyway. Adolescents require quality, close supervision and mentoring for specialized tasks. If this is not forthcoming, they will have accidents and injuries.

This isn’t new news, but it is still important news for anyone who is struggling to teach a young driver how to be safe on the road. Simply telling them “don’t speed” doesn’t work, because they don’t correlate speed with risky behavior. Teen boys, especially, are more likely to engage in risky behavior while driving. For example, teen boys are the least likely to be able to navigate a sweeping turn than any other age group or girls who are the same age. They can’t properly identify the risk in these corners and often times take them too fast. This lack of ability to correctly evaluate risk and modify behavior for risk takes the lives of many young drivers.

Recently, Mark Motley and Zach Raffety, 18 and 17 respectively, were killed in my area attempting this exact maneuver. From the skid marks and the force of the impact it is obvious that Motley took the corner way too fast. When I explained to my father which turn the crash happened on this local road we frequent  he replied, “It happened there? How? That’s such an easy corner.” The corner is easy because it isn’t tight, it was just a gentle sweeping bend, but that means that it can be taken at a higher rate of speed, which means it can be very, very dangerous.

But how could Motley know that what he was doing was risky when he was eight years away from developing the ability to judge what risky is? It is hard to hold him responsible for the crash on a mental level because of this lack of brain development. He may have been physically responsible for the crash, but mentally, he simply didn’t understand that he was taking a risk.

So what is the solution to this problem? Obviously we can’t hold licenses until people are in their mid twenties, that’s not an economically viable solution. There are a few ways to try to overcome the mental shortcomings of new drivers.

  • First: monitor your new driver. The research shows that parental involvement, restrictions and monitoring reduce crashes. So talk to them about all of this, let them know what risky behavior is and why it is risky. Restrict night driving and driving with friends, as these two things greatly add to crashes and set up a parent teen driving agreement so there is no gray area about the rules.
  • Second: enroll your child in a car control clinic. These classes will allow your teen driver to learn through first hand experience why risky behavior is risky. Skid pad exercises, handing exercises, and exercises that utilize distractions all are very powerful in sucking the ego out of a new driver and revealing risks that they didn’t know existed.
  • Third: ask yourself if your child is mature enough to drive. If you don’t feel like your teen is ready to drive then don’t let them. They may hate you for it, but each year a driver waits to get their license, the more their chances of crashing decreases and the more their chances of surviving increase. This is directly related to mental development and maturity. You may be seen as the worst person in the world by your child if you tell them they can’t get their license, but when they have the maturity to look back on their teen years and see the stupid stuff they did, they’ll probably thank you.
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