Profile of The Young Driver

Physiological and Psychological Profile of The Young Driver - Driving is made-up of a complex group of factors that continually impact perception, thinking, and motor 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 perception, thinking an motor skills management.

In recent years, research with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has shown that the brain of the adolescent and the teenager is still not fully developed in emotional, mental, and physical response skills when compared with the adult brain. The part of the brain that generates raw emotion is in an accelerated developmental phase while the part of the brain that controls good judgment is, for the most part, inactive. This judgment control center (the prefrontal cortex if you want to get technical) is where your brain processes information from your eyes, skin, and internal organs. It is also where you evaluate information, control muscle movement, and make decisions. Obviously, these functions are very important to drivers, but the brain does not fully develop them until the early twenties. Immaturity of this portion of the brain means that the teen will have trouble with multiple thought tracking, organization, use of critical memory, judicious decision making, appropriate speed of motor responses. Combine that delay with the hyperactivity of raw emotion and thrill seeking and you have a situation that virtually begs for unsafe driving practices.

There are two pieces of the brain development in teenagers that we want to consider: speeding up nerve transmissions and eliminating unneeded nerve pathways. Until our early to mid twenties (in some cases early thirties), the nervous system is under construction. One of the last developments in the nervous system is the insulation of the nerves to make information travel faster through them. This process is called myelination. During teen years, the nerves connecting the areas of the brain that control impulsiveness, process good judgment, and regulate emotion are finally insulated for faster transmissions. Those nerves that do not yet have the insulation coating have 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.

For over 10 years, researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, have been mapping the development of the brain in children and teens. They found that the judgment and control center of the brain has a rapid growth spurt around age 10. Starting at age 12, the extra nerve connections begin dying off. The big wigs call this process 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 teens who have not completed the pruning process simply do 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 decisions.

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. Adults view this as an invincibility mentality. Teens look at it as living one day at a time and having fun. Most young people simply do not see themselves as likely to be in a collision.

Immaturity and inexperience are characteristics that often make the teen less skilled and less cautious. Ignore these facts and add in the advanced automobile of today and we have created a potentially deadly machine on the highway.

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. The graduated driver licensing (GDL) laws that we see sweeping the nation are the first attempt to take a teens natural limitations into consideration as we prepare them to drive safely.

By devoting extra time to establishing good driving habits, you are helping your teens brain develop. The time and attention you devote to instilling good, safe driving habits in your teen will create automatic responses that may very well save the life of your teen in an emergency situation.

Dr. Don Berryhill & Wayne Tully
and the editorial staff of the National Driver Training Institute