The Teen Brain and Distracted Driving

Teen driving behaviors intrigue me. These young drivers are intelligent, alert and highly capable in handling difficult challenges while playing sports. Not only that, same teenagers excel at school. Of course, they know how to follow a healthy regimen. Despite all that, at times they are very unpredictable.

Most of us attribute that to typical teenager behavior. Parents expect that to change as they grow out of teen years. I find it very hard to accept that logic. I am an analytical thinker and have tried to dig in deeper into the process of teen decision-making. I have tried to look for interventions that may inculcate disciplined and responsible behaviors.

In my quest for an answer I found a source offering a compelling and fact based reasoning. That source is Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a Royal Society University Research Fellow and Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, UK.  Her research centers on the development of social cognition and executive function in the typically developing adolescent brain, using a variety of behavioral and neuroimaging methods. To quote her work: ‘the idea that the brain is somehow fixed in early childhood, which was an idea that was very strongly believed up until fairly recently, is completely wrong. There’s no evidence that the brain is somehow set and can’t change after early childhood. In fact, it goes through this very large development throughout adolescence and right into the 20s and 30s, and even after that it’s plastic forever; the plasticity is a baseline state, no matter how old you are. That has implications for things like intervention programs and educational programs for teenagers.

Ms. Blackmore states that teenagers are more prone to accidents and unintended actions that turn into tragedies. Generally such accidents are caused by risk taking behaviors rampant among teenagers. Her premise is that teen years are filled with heightened self-consciousness and burdened with peer pressure with a strong desire for peer approval. They seem to get hung up on being ‘cool’. According to Ms. Blackmore, “They’re driven to develop a sense of self and self-identity, and especially a sense of who they are, how they’re seen by other people, in particular their peers. It’s a time where there’s probably an increased drive to take risks, so from the evolutionary point of view, to sort of move away from the relative security of your family and your parents, and take risks by discovering things for yourself in the outside world.”

Readers must be wondering where am I going with this. The title of the article has distracted driving in it and they are yet to find any discussion on that subject.

OK, here is my take on that.

Considering peer pressure to be a big influencer, it is easy for a teen to get entangled in risky behaviors that are pervasive in their age groups, and performing dangerous activities while driving. But, I see a silver lining there. If teens are easily influenced by bad behaviors, it is not unreasonable to assume that peer influenced good behavior is also a possibility.

I believe peer based interventions would go a long way toward instilling safe driving practices. Instead of getting lectures from parents it is important to establish peer led groups/clubs stationed in schools to spread the message of distraction-free driving. Successful clubs like SADD, DACA, and BPA in high schools are already making a difference and have a very good track record. I urge teens in Eden Prairie and adjacent communities to start a new TEENS AGAINST DISTRACTED DRIVING (TADD) club starting this fall. As Chairman of the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation (www.shreyadixit.org) I am available to help teachers and students set up such clubs. Let us work towards building distraction-free students by announcing the formation of the first club at the 8th Raksha Walk for Distraction-free Driving on August 1 in Eden Prairie.

Any takers?