What Really Causes Teen Driving Accidents?

Ann LambertCars driving on a road

By Ann Lambert, Postdoctoral Research Associate, Department of Psychology and Behavioral Medicine Center, Dept of Psychiatry & NB Sciences

Related posts will be found under Driving

Vehicular collisions are the leading cause of death in adolescence, a statistic often attributed to lack of experience and “poor judgment.” Nonetheless, a significant subgroup of drivers pass through adolescence with no vehicular collisions or citations despite minimal driving experience. What, then, are these young drivers doing right? A major factor that could differentiate adolescents at low vs. high risk for unsafe driving and other risky practices could be the delayed development of executive functioning.

The term executive functioning refers to a constellation of related cognitive processes that allow us to control the contents of our thoughts and actions and play an important role in impulse inhibition, planning, and problem solving. Neuropsychological and neurophysiological evidence tells us that executive function changes across the lifespan, demonstrating an inverse curve with the maturation of the prefrontal cortex in adolescence and young adulthood and a subsequent decline with prefrontal atrophy in older age. Interestingly, this curve mirrors the trajectories of driving safety across the lifespan. What’s more, tests of executive functioning have been associated with simulated driving performance, on-road driving performance, and vehicular collisions. An interesting and exciting caveat is that there is an apparent dose-response relationship between the development/maintenance of executive function and physical activity and fitness among children and the elderly. However, this relationship has not been explored in adolescents nor has the possibility that these exercise-induced improvements in executive function generalize to improvements in driving and risk taking.

Our YouthNex-funded interdisciplinary research team is currently launching the first known longitudinal investigation of relationships between physical fitness/activity, executive function and both general and driving-specific risk-taking in novice adolescent drivers. Our study will quantify general and driving-specific executive function, affinity to general and driving-specific risk-taking, and physical activity and fitness in 100 adolescents who have just secured their independent driver’s license. Research participants will then be followed through their first six months of independent driving, documenting the occurrence of vehicular collisions and citations and other risky behaviors. We will then apply causal modeling to test hypothesized relationships among our various indices of exercise, executive function and risk-taking. We anticipate that higher physical activity/fitness will positively influence general and driving-specific executive function and that these, in turn will be related to lower levels of general and driving-specific risk-taking both immediately and prospectively over the first six months of independent driving.

Study Seeks Participants
We are recruiting 100 students from Albemarle High School who anticipate securing their independent driver’s license in the near future. Get the details of the IRB-HSR approved request for participants, and help us get the word out: Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds & Driving Safety Research Study.


Comments are closed.