The Teen Brain: Under Construction

Here’s a common scene in households across the country with teen drivers: A newly minted driver brings home a ticket for running a red light and nonchalantly presents it to his parents, mumbling something like, “I don’t know why I got this.”

“What were you thinking?” asks the incredulous parent. “Why didn’t you use your brain?”

Truth be told, he probably did.

If parents find that hard to grasp, they might find some comfort in knowing that even scientists don’t yet completely understand this complex, dynamic, stupefying organ called the teenage brain. But some answers are emerging.

“Because of massive advances in the ability to study brain function and structure, scientists have begun to see some explanations for the kinds of behavior we see in teenagers,” says Robert D. Foss, director of the University of North Carolina’s Center for the Study of Young Drivers. “The research has given us one irrefutable fact: Teen brains are not yet fully formed. They’re still developing.”

teen-brain-422x250A Look at the Wiring
The human brain develops from back to front, and the last region to be completed is the prefrontal cortex, which handles the important task of decision making. In teens, the areas of the brain responsible for assessing risk and weighing the consequences of one’s actions are still “under construction.” That wiring isn’t fully connected until a person reaches his or her early 20s.

The neurological system that governs impulse control appears to develop most slowly, Foss says, which is one explanation why teens speed or text while driving knowing full well the dangers to a greater degree than other age groups. “I don’t mean to say that we can excuse teenagers for irresponsible behavior,” Foss says. “They must be held accountable. But we can’t blame them or talk them out of this development phase any more than we can talk a 2-year-old out of going through the Terrible Twos.”

Researchers also say that teen brains have trouble managing complex social situations. “Many of the most dangerous driving situations occur when teens are with multiple passengers, when they are out late, or when they are excited or acting out,” says Bruce Simons-Morton, senior investigator and chief of the Prevention Research Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Maryland.

Therefore, because of their young age and lack of driving experience, teens may be at greater risk of being involved in a crash when they’re faced with added stress or complications—for example, congested traffic, unexpected actions by other road users, or performing secondary tasks (like texting or adjusting an iPod). When adults face similar situations, their brains can usually process them better because adults have more driving experience.

Inattention, due to secondary activities like texting or to distractions like noisy passengers, is a major cause of crashes among teen drivers. On average, teens are better than adults at managing electronic tasks—not surprising for a generation practically born with video game controllers in hand. However, adults are better at dividing their attention between driving and managing electronic tasks, says Simons-Morton.

In one study, Simons-Morton gave cell phones to adults and novice teen drivers and asked them to dial and obtain some particular information while driving on a test track. When they were within about 200 feet of a traffic signal, the light was turned yellow. All of the adults looked up from their task and stopped at the light, but only two-thirds of the teens did so. “Teens may be good at the tasks themselves, but they’re not good at separating them and keeping their eyes on the road,” Simons-Morton says. “Adults have the experience and wisdom to keep looking back at the road.”

Studies show that teens take more risks behind the wheel when they’re with their friends than when they’re driving alone or with a responsible adult. A 16- or 17-year-old driver’s risk of being in a fatal crash increases with each additional passenger, ultimately quadrupling when carrying three or more passengers younger than 21 (and no older passengers), according to research conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. That’s why teen passenger restrictions are an important component of the graduated driver licensing (GDL) process, which allots responsibility to teen drivers in stages as they gain experience behind the wheel.

Managing the Risk
Crash rates per mile driven for teens are nearly four times higher than for adults, according to the AAA Foundation. And teens are 50 percent more likely to crash in the first month of driving than after a year.

Researchers attribute this to teens’ lack of experience, as well as their inability to divide and shift their attention among tasks and stay focused. To address this situation, traffic-safety experts are creating tools to help teens improve in these areas before they actually get behind the wheel.

Posit Science, a San Francisco company that produces brain-training software, is creating InGear, a computer-based program, in partnership with AAA. Currently in development, it features arcade-style video games to help teens practice skills needed to manage the high cognitive demands of driving. For example, in Andromedus X, the user has to track moving objects in the center of their vision while also monitoring potential hazards in their peripheral vision.

As teens play the video games over and over, neural connections in the prefrontal cortex and other memory areas reorganize so that the brain’s responses to the visual and attention demands of driving become more efficient and automatic.

“Our approach helps people train their brains so they can process information faster and maintain focus on the road—and that makes them safer drivers,” says Peter B. Delahunt, Posit Science’s R & D director. For optimal benefit, teens must spend about 10 hours with the program, but Delahunt notes that brain function can be improved with even just a couple hours’ use.

Another tool, Driver-ZED, an interactive DVD produced by the AAA Foundation, takes teen drivers through realistic scenarios—such as dealing with an aggressive tailgater or encountering a child chasing a ball into the street—that help them develop risk-management skills without the pressure of actually being on the road.

In addition to graduated driver licensing, DVDs, and brain-training software, there’s one more important training tool to consider: parents. “Parents have a vast amount of wisdom they’re probably not even aware of,” Foss says. “They need to pass that wisdom on to their teen. They can do this by driving around with their child as much as possible in a variety of circumstances [e.g., driving at night, on freeways, in bad weather]. That’s how their child will learn.”


teen-brains-422x185Under the Hood

These time-lapse MRI images of human brain development between the ages of 5 and 20 (above) demonstrate how our brains change and mature. The brain develops from back to front. The yellow shading shown in the far left image reflect areas—such as those responsible for making judgments and assessing risk—that are still immature in young teens. These sections begin to fill in as adulthood approaches.

As teens get older, the brain reorganizes information and integrates lessons learned (i.e., experience) into memory; the blue and purple shading represent these developments. In the final image, the frontal lobe, which handles executive functions and cognitive processes such as reasoning and planning, finally matures in young adulthood.


5  Ways to Help Your Teen
If teenagers’ brains are not operating at full capacity, no wonder parents fret about them driving a 3,000-pound machine that can go faster than 100 mph.

Parents can do more than worry every time their teen walks out the door with the car keys. By getting involved, they can help their teen understand the risks and responsibilities of driving. “All teens are not necessarily bad drivers,” says Anita Lorz Villagrana, the Auto Club’s traffic safety manager. “They’re just new drivers who lack experience and are dealing with expected physiological changes.” She offers these tips to help get your teen driver off to a safe start.

1. Be a positive role model. Ninety-five percent of parents believe they’re safe drivers, yet 82 percent of teens report seeing their parents drive carelessly. AAA research shows that teen drivers with collisions and citations often have parents with similar driving records.

2. Assess your child’s readiness to drive. Not all teens are mature and responsible enough to start driving at the age they’re allowed to get their permit. “Also assess if both you and your teen are ready to dedicate the time and effort it takes to practice driving skills,” Villagrana says.

3. Make sure your teen is well rested. Teens need about nine hours of sleep every night. Drowsy driving can be as risky as drunk driving; it affects perception, judgment, and reflexes.

4. Know your state’s GDL law. The Parent–Teen Driving Agreement, available at teendriving.aaa.com, reinforces the GDL law and provides guidelines to discuss with your teen. Agreeing in advance in writing to rules, restrictions, and consequences of driving behavior establishes driving as a privilege—not a right—for your teen.

5. Take advantage of teachable moments. When you’re driving and your teen is a passenger, take time to explain what you’re doing and why. For example, you might say, “It’s raining, so I’m braking earlier in case the road is slick.” Such communication can help prevent crashes, injuries, and fatalities.


Kristen A. Nelson is a writer and consultant based in Washington, D.C.


For information on driving laws, the safest cars for teens, insurance for your teen, plus other resources, go to teendriving.aaa.com. Learn about the Auto Club Driving School in the Teen Driving section of our website and via the Driver-ZED website.


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The Teen Brain: Under Construction
New research is revealing why teen drivers behave the way they do
By Kristen A. Nelson
Westways  November/December  2012

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