The Physiology of the New Teen Driver (Technical Report) - Physiological and Psychological Profile of The Young Driver - Driving is made-up of a complex group of factors that continually impact perceptual, cognitive, and psychomotor skills. The driver must be constantly aware of the environment, processing and evaluating the environmental information, and developing appropriate responses. According to the Johns Hopkins University Study of 1955, a proficient driver must have mastery of performance skills in three major areas: the control of the vehicle (operational), maneuvering the vehicle (guidance), and planning (navigational), all three of which are subject to perceptual, cognitive an psychomotor management.
In recent years, research with magnetic resonance imaging has shown that the brain of the adolescent and the teenager is still significantly underdeveloped in emotional, mental, physical response skills when compared with the adult brain. The limbic system, where we generate raw emotions, is in an accelerated developmental phase while the prefrontal cortex is, for the most part, inactive. The prefrontal cortex, the site of the visual field area, the critical judgment area, the primary motor area, and the somatosensory area, is not fully developed until the late teens or early twenties. Researchers have concluded that the immaturity of this portion of the brain adversely influences cognitive skills such as multiple thought tracking and organization, causes delays in use of critical memory and judicious decision making, and slows appropriate motor response. Combine that delay with the hyperactivity of raw emotion and thrill seeking and you have a situation that virtually begs for unsafe driving practices.
Since 1991, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, have been mapping the development of the brain in children and adolescents. They found that the prefrontal cortex has a rapid growth spurt around age 10. Starting at age 12, the excess nerve connections begin dying off in a process called pruning. The nerves that are used remain in use. The nerves that are not used are lost. This apparently allows the brain to become more efficient at the skills and routines that the body will actually use, without wasting space for what is unused. Researchers believe that teen who has not completed the pruning process simply does not have the brainpower to manage all of the available neural pathways AND manage multiple thoughts, critical memories, and emotions well enough to make good judgments.
Further studies have demonstrated that the myelination of nerve cells, a process of lipid coating that speeds up nerve impulses, is not completed until the early to mid twenties. During adolescence the nerves that connect areas of the brain that control impulsiveness, process good judgment, and regulate emotion are finally insulated by this lipid coating. This lack of complete neurological development has a definite influence on the driving skills of the adolescent or teen. As a result , their abilities to maintain full attention, recognize potential dangers, evaluate risky situations, and make good decisions are challenged.
These facts are supported by research indicating that the motivation of young drivers to seek thrills or impress friends is usually much stronger than the willingness to be safe. They tend to see themselves as being invincible and less likely than others to be in accidents.
It will be important in the future to govern youth as they begin their driving by preparing legislation founded upon this developmentally and scientifically based information.
Immaturity, both physical and psychological, and inexperience are characteristics that often make the adolescent or teen less capable and less cautious. Couple the ignoring of these facts with the automobile of today and we have created a very deadly machine on the highway.
By devoting extra time to establishing good driving habits, you are facilitating the brain development and allowing the physiology of the teen to help, rather than hinder, the creation of a safe driver.
Dr. Don Berryhill and the editorial staff of the National Driver Training Institute