Pay Attention: Why your Teen's Adolescent Brain is a Road Safety Issue

by Joshua on April 15, 2019

As a parent, if you think back to your formative years as a teenager you might well cringe at some of the things you said and did at the time, but there are scientific reasons why aspects of our behavior at that age are difficult to control.

The timeline of brain development in young people becomes an issue when it comes to teens getting behind the wheel of their first car, as it can hamper their ability to react to a situation developing in front of them on the road.

Scientific studies and ongoing research are consistently revealing that none of us can multitask as well as we believe we can. That is an even greater potential safety problem when talking about teen drivers, who can often lack the level of focus required to switch their attention between tasks when driving.

The reason for this is the pre-frontal cortex is not yet fully developed in teenagers, which explains the mood swings and typical unpredictable behavior that parents are so quick to notice. It also creates a potential for danger when it comes to keeping your teen safe on the road.

Teenagers are consistently the most at-risk group of drivers and account for a disproportionate number of accidents on the road. The cause of that high accident rate is often cited as a lack of driving experience, which is obviously a highly relevant factor, but the fact that their brain has not fully developed to give them the skills to “multitask” behind the wheel as well as adults is another significant pointer toward why the accident rate is so high in this age band of drivers.

Dealing with distractions

Distracted driving is a major road safety issue and when you understand how your teen son or daughter is being restricted from achieving a certain level of control and coordination because their pre-frontal cortex is still developing, you soon see why distractions while driving become even more dangerous.

Checking their phone is an obviously dangerous distraction and could lead to a brush with the law but other activities like eating and drinking, listening to music, and even following a sat nav, can all be distractions that can lead to disaster, when you consider how nature is making it difficult to focus your teen’s attention between tasks.

At the risk of saying something blindingly obvious, we all need our brain to drive safely and when you are using it for anything other than focusing on the road ahead it puts you in danger of having an accident.

Through no biological fault of their own, that risk of having an accident as a result of distracted driving is higher when it comes to teens.

Doing your bit to help

As a parent, you obviously want to nurture and educate your teenager to keep them safe and acquire a decent set of life skills that include being able to drive safely.

Making allowances for the lack of attention that they can suffer from at this age is a good starting point, which means working with them to highlight some of the main distractions that need to be avoided inside the car so that they can focus all their attention on driving.

Talk to your teen about putting their phone on silent and away from reach while they are driving and remind them that it only takes a split second of looking at the console to choose a music track or check the sat nav, for conditions on the road to change without them noticing.

When you talk to your teen about safe driving, you may want to consider a parent-teen safe driving contract that serves as a formal agreement between you and your teen. Is it a legal contract? No, but putting the agreement in writing works to make your expectations clear and memorable.

Another major distraction that needs to be talked about is passengers.

About a quarter of crashes involving teen drivers involved one or more teenage passengers traveling in the car with them, which suggests that this is a major source of distraction. A teen with transport who can offer their friends a lift is always going to be popular but the accident statistics suggest that teens driving with similar-aged friends on board are a dangerous mix.

Try to encourage your teen to avoid taking passengers for at least the first six months of their driving, while they are still developing their skills.

Making allowances for differences in your teen’s brain chemistry should help parents understand the unique focusing challenges they are facing and highlight the importance of guiding them on how to minimize distractions and stay safe on the road.


Scott Handler has been working in transportation for a number of years and is passionate about road safety issues. He always appreciates the opportunity to highlight issues and offer guidance through his online posts.

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