Changing Drivers Ed in America  (Part II)

The belief that inexperience plays a significant role in why teen drivers are involved in more crashes and vehicle fatalities than any other age group of drivers is a widely held belief by most people.  On the surface, it seems like a logical and almost common sense conclusion when you consider that teenage drivers make up 7% of the driving population but they’re involved in 14% of the fatal crashes.

Along with the inexperience theory are two somewhat related beliefs that compound the effects of inexperience.  First is the invincible nature teens possess.  When invincibility is combined with inexperience, crashing during the learning to drive years becomes a somewhat expected result.  Second is the scientific data that shows the teenage brain isn’t fully developed until teens reach their middle twenties.

According to scientific brain studies, the frontal region which controls impulses and emotions is the last part of the brain to develop.  Therefore, without the ability to keep their impulses in check while at the stage in life where they feel most invincible and lacking sufficient experience behind the wheel, it seems quite believable that teens would be almost predisposed to crashing.

However, the statistics simply don’t support these conclusions.  Take for example the first chart I displayed in Part I of this series.  The number of drivers killed in the 20-24 year old group possesses 4-9 years more experience than the teen groups yet their death tolls (5901) is roughly 25% higher than those between the ages of 16-19.  Even the death tolls for 25-29 year olds fails to show any significant benefit from their additional years of driving experience.

If inexperience is truly the primary cause behind most teenage vehicle fatalities, where is the evidence of gain after 10-12 years of additional experience?  The statistics don’t reflect any.  At what point in the experience equation should we begin to see some major improvement?

Likewise, consider the statistics for single vehicle crashes.  Obviously, these are instances where the respective drivers bear the burden of responsibility over the loss of control and resulting crash.  For teenage drivers, this represents 48% of their fatal crashes.  For drivers 20-24 years old, it represents 47% and for those 25-29 years of age, it represents 43%.  If experience is the key, where is the evidence to support this?

The argument for inexperience really gets lost when you apply it to seat belt use.  The generation involved in these statistics grew up wearing seat belts from the day they were born.  If experience in the context of driving produces safer driver habits, behaviors and results, why do over half of the fatal teen crashes involve unbelted drivers and passengers?  Worse yet, why do these percentages continue to increase with more driving experience?

Perhaps the lack of seat belt use is more likely a result of their invincible nature.  The statistical evidence certainly confirms there is significant risk involved in not wearing a seat belt.  So, ignoring this evidence could suggest these drivers don’t take this risk serious and believe, to some degree, it just won’t happen to them.

On the other hand, while the invincibility theory fits well in the seat belt example, it fails to show through in other statistics.  Being invincible generally means there is a propensity towards risky or reckless behavior and since driving behaviors and actual speeds are not represented in the statistics, it is unclear whether invincibility plays any significant role in fatal crashes.  Additionally, when the “driver error” factor is applied, the potential significance declines further.

While it’s generally not wise to argue against science, I’m going to go out on a limb and do it anyway.  Science may be able to prove its underdeveloped brain theory in part on the statistical evidence for the crashes that have occurred, but how do you explain the higher percentage of teens who weren’t involved in crashes?  Similarly, are we saying that the fatalities involved in 25-29 year old group suggests their brains never fully developed?

Here again, the case for better education and training seems to strengthen.  To illustrate this point, ask yourself this question.  Would you (or your teen) or even someone you know go swimming or water skiing when sharks are present or intentionally stand in an open field during a lightning storm?  If not, why?

If the decisions to avoid entering the water or field are not based on personal experience, then I submit these decisions are based on a level of comprehension for the dangers these actions pose.  Since more teens are killed in car crashes than shark attacks or lightning strikes, there is some evidence here to suggest that regardless of how invincible they feel or how under-developed their brain is, the comprehension for danger is education related.

Experience can be a valuable learning tool when the lesson doesn’t cost you your life.  It is also true that invincibility turns to vulnerability when a person comprehends the reality of the risk and begins to take that seriously and if the only cure for controlling impulses was waiting for the brain to fully develop, driving would not be the number one cause of death for teenagers.

In Part III of our series, we’ll take a look at various initiatives that were designed to reduce teen vehicle fatalities and see if they’ve been successful or merely treatments for the symptoms.  We’ll also introduce some additional statistics that provide some new perspective on the issue.