Is Your Teen Ready to Drive?

Is your teen constantly losing things? Having trouble remembering to hand in homework? Being easily distracted? If so, take a break before handing over the keys to the car.

This is the result of growing research suggesting that young drivers with poor working memory are much more likely to be in a car accident. Working memory is the cognitive skill that enables people to pay attention in real time and make decisions when faced with distractions.

“When you drive, you need to integrate what’s going on with the road, street lights and traffic with what’s on the radio and your passengers, all in a way that allows you to drive safely,” says Daniel Romer, PhD, research director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “All of this calls into question your working memory.”

Auto crashes are the leading cause of injury and death among American teens, killing 2,300 per year.

The risk generally tends to fade with young adulthood. Even a 22-year-old novice is less likely to crash than an equally novice 16-year-old. Since some areas of the brain, including those that control working memory, do not fully develop until early adulthood, Romer’s team began to question whether there was any risk of an accident. thing to do with brain development.

They followed 118 young people aged 11 and 13 to 18 and 20, assessing working memory each year. When they followed up 2 years later with an investigation of their driving experiences, about 30% had been in at least one accident. Those who had developed working memory more slowly were more likely to have crashed, according to the study published in Jama Network.

“People tend to think of teens as just reckless, but it turns out you can’t generalize,” Romer says. “Developmentally, one 16-year-old can be very different from another.”

Previous studies have linked poor working memory with reckless and inattentive driving. One, published in 2019, found that young drivers with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), which is often accompanied by working memory deficits, receive more tickets and are 62% more likely to break down within one month of obtaining their license.


But Romer notes that practice can help.

“Having low working memory is a major problem if you don’t have the skills, but if you’ve been driving for a while things start to be automated,” he says, noting that most states now ban drivers. new drivers drive under high risk conditions, such as with friends in the car or driving after midnight.

He envisions a day when driving tests include working memory assessments, pediatricians (who in some states must sign before a teenager can obtain a license) be equipped with better screening tools to identify the risk of accident, and parents can give their teenagers driving simulations to reinforce the work. memory skills.

In the meantime, don’t take the decision to let your teen get a permit too lightly.

“If a parent realizes that their child is having trouble paying attention or remembering things, they need to be extra careful,” he says.

In numbers

2364. Number of teens in the United States who died in car crashes in 2017.

300,000. Number of teens in the United States treated in emergency rooms in 2017 for injuries sustained in car crashes.

> 2x. Automobile fatality rate among male drivers aged 16 to 19, more than twice as high as among women of this age.

1.5x. The accident rate for 16 year olds is 1.5 times higher than for 19 year olds.

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Daniel Romer, PhD, research director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

CDC: “Teen Drivers: Get the Facts”.

JAMA Network: “Development of working memory and road accidents in young drivers.”

Pediatrics: “Traffic accidents, violations and suspensions among young drivers with ADHD.”

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