Ken Bowling, managing director, Driving Risk Management, looks at the attitude of young drivers to the road.
Insurance data harvested over many years demonstrates that the under 24s are at a much higher risk of becoming involved in road collisions than any other age group. There seems to be a general assumption that young drivers fall into this category because they are inexperienced and impetuous. To some extent that is true but the greatest influence is the significant change that occurs in our brains during adolescent years.
Just fifteen years ago it was assumed that most of the major changes in our brain happened in the very early years. But then along came Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and neuroscientists suddenly had the ability to look inside actual living brains.
The main area of the brain that concerns us here is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex in human brains is proportionately much larger than in any other species. It is involved in a lot of our higher functions, such as planning, decision making, inhibiting inappropriate behaviour and so on. That latter point is an interesting one; it stops us saying things that can offend and doing things that are stupid. So it is very important in modern society; it helps us understand other people and contributes to our sense of self awareness.
It is an area of the brain that goes through a lot of changes in our adolescent years. During that period, the connections in our brain are fine tuned and the connections that appear to serve us well are strengthened, whilst those that don’t are pruned away. From a driving perspective, the most important change comes between the age of fourteen and early adulthood, i.e. approximately twenty years of age.
As children and adolescents we have less ability to see things from other people’s perspective. That is in the literal sense of ‘If I can see them they can see me’, which as adult we know isn’t always true. As adults we are more familiar with the rules of the road and are more easily able to anticipate other people’s actions. That may appear to be another way of saying adults have more experience but the fact is the grey matter in the prefrontal cortex changes a lot in adolescents and exaggerates their lack of experience.
The biggest change though is in taking risks. Adolescents are particularly prone to taking risks when they are with their friends. There is a significant drive to become independent from parents and to impress friends during that period. There are physical rewards for adolescents, in that the limbic system within the brain becomes active when risks are taken and are successful. There is literally a reward system for risks. It is true for adults too, which is why we have extreme sports like bungee jumping but in adolescents the limbic system is hypersensitive and rewards risk taking disproportionately.
So what we have in adolescents is a prefrontal cortex that is not sufficiently developed to stop us from doing things that are inappropriate, combined with a hypersensitive limbic system that rewards risk taking and an inability to see things from other people’s perspective. Perhaps we can now begin to understand why there are so many incidents involving young people on the roads! Hardly surprising then that the average fleet manager thinks twice about giving a driving-related job to an under 24 year old.
That may appear to be a bleak picture for adolescent road safety but there is a very positive note to strike here. Our environment helps to shape the adolescent brain so if we are taught road safety in an engaging way from an early age that will help to shape our attitudes later on. The very malleability of the brain in adolescent years is sometimes seen as a problem but it can also be the solution. If good driving tuition is provided in our pre-adolescent and early adolescent years it can almost literally shape our thoughts for the future.
Young men go through adolescence a couple of years later than young women, which is probably why the term ‘boy racers’ springs so easily to mind and they tend to hit that point in their lives just as they are starting to drive. The key is to give them the right guidance in a manner which is acceptable to them in these crucial years, a time when self image is everything. Making road safety ‘cool’ is a tall order perhaps but it may be the only way to change the dangerous driving habits of a generation.