How brain development affects teens’ driving
What do teen drivers, older drivers, and distracted drivers all have in common? The answer is “the brain.” And understanding the brain is the key to knowing why we get into car crashes and how to prevent these crashes.
Contrary to popular belief, we do not multitask. Our brains are incapable of doing so. Instead, we rapidly switch between all of the tasks vying for our attention. When we drive, at a minimum we must switch our attention between:
- The road (“Is that car getting ready to stop?”, “Is the light green?”)
- Controlling the car (“Am I driving straight?”, “How fast am I going?”)
- Status of the vehicle (“Do I have gas?”, “Should I shift?”
Even with these basic tasks, our attention must be allocated very strategically to drive safely. Teens struggle with One of the reasons teens are such at-risk drivers is because they lack the experience to know how to strategically switch their attention. As Dr. Donald Fisher at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and other researchers have shown, younger drivers’ brains don’t attend to the right places at the right times. Therefore, teens can miss potential hazards and find themselves unable to prevent crashes.
It also does not help that one of the areas of the brain that helps us coordinate where and when we attend to different tasks does not fully develop until we are in our early to mid-20’s. An area of the brain known as the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) contains a number of neural subsystems that help us keep track of our goals, control our attention, and make choices about when, and how, to task switch. The younger brain is still developing – another reason driving is a risky task for teens.