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Why Your Teen’s Brain Isn’t Ready To Drive

By Aaron Crowe

As summer ends and students start driving to school again, it may look like some of those teens are driving with a hole in their head — speeding, illegal turns and taking chances while driving.

While part of their brain isn’t really missing, a teenager’s brain isn’t fully developed yet and their decision making processes may look like they’re missing a part of their brain. Nothing is actually missing, it’s just that the frontal lobe — which monitors motor skills and emotional maturity — isn’t fully developed in teens and can lead to more risk taking and being unable to perform complex maneuvers.

Teen drivers are “more in the moment” and unable to make quick decisions well and foresee what their actions will lead to, says Dr. John Mayer, who lectures at schools on the differences in MRIs of the brains of teens and adults to show how teens’ brains aren’t fully developed in the decision making process.

“Teens are consistently weak in the ability to chain events together for a result,” Mayer says.

For example, not signaling and quickly driving across three lanes of traffic because they forgot their exit has approached is a move teen drivers will make without realizing it could affect the drivers behind them. “They don’t think of the larger consequences,” he says.

The frontal lobe — just behind the forehead — doesn’t fully develop until age 20-25, Mayer says. That doesn’t mean young people shouldn’t be driving before age 25, but that they’re taught through repetition and correct behavior how to drive, he says.

Graduate licensing laws — which every state has — help lessen teenage driving accidents by phasing in how teens can drive. They begin with a learner’s permit and progress to a license with restrictions, and finally an unrestricted license.

Oklahoma, for example, allows drivers who are at least 15 and six moths old who have completed driver’s education courses to get a learner permit and drive only when accompanied by a licensed driver who is at least 21 years old. To get the next step — an intermediate license — they must have a learner permit for six months and at least 50 hours of behind-the-wheel training from a licensed driver, no traffic convictions, and pass a driving skills exam.

To get an unrestricted license, they must have an intermediate license for six months, have no traffic convictions, or be 18 and pass all driving and vision exams.

Some states such as California don’t let teens with restricted licenses drive between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Graduated licenses help lower accidents, according to a 2006 estimate by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, which found that graduated license laws reduced accidents for 16-year-olds by 23%, preventing more than 8,000 accidents and injuries among teens.

For parents trying to teach their children responsibilities, graduated licenses are a smart move, Mayer says.

“You act like an adult, you get treated like an adult. You act like a child, you get treated like a child” and don’t get to drive, he says.

Getting a teen to take out the garbage or feed the dog isn’t as important as learning how to drive, but all can be a set of steps to becoming a responsible adult.

“Parents need to be aware of when young people are responsible and ready to drive,” Mayer says.

One of the best things parents can do in teaching their children to drive is to be good role models by being good drivers and using their seatbelts, says Jan Withers, national president of MADD, or Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Graduated licenses are important, Withers says, but so is the experience level of young drivers who don’t have enough driving experience to make quick decisions.

While they’ll never have the experiences that older drivers have, teens can get help working on how they make decisions driving, says Robbie Cutcliffe, who owns the Wheels driving school in Milwaukee, Wis.

“Their decision-making process may not be fully developed yet, but they can still make decisions,” Cutcliffe says. “They just make decisions for different reasons, I think.”

Those reasons include wanting to be respected, which Cutcliffe realized when he was a young driver included not driving fast because it was disrespectful to other drivers.

Knowing not to text on a cellphone while driving is common knowledge, but teens still do it because they think they’re immune to being in an accident, says Cutcliffe, who teaches drivers how to avoid accidents with emergency braking and skid control so they can stop the car in the shortest distance possible.

Banning people from driving until their mature enough to drive isn’t the answer, partly because the lack of good public transportation in the United States makes driving a necessity for many young people, says Maria Wojtczak, who owns Driving MBA, a driving school in Arizona.

“I don’t think that we can wait until the frontal lobe is fully developed before we let kids drive,” says Wojtczak, who adds that getting a license is “not a right of passage” that should be given to teens.

Parents should be made aware of a teen’s brain development when the teen takes a driving course, and shouldn’t back off in disciplining their driving habits, she says. That includes not allowing multiple passengers when a teen is driving, as some state laws do, and having a GPS unit so the parent knows where the teen is at, she says.

As the MADD president said, maybe the best way for parents to teach teens how to drive is to be good drivers themselves.

“The parents play a huge role in how their teens drive,” says Cutcliffe, the driving instructor.

A parent who is constantly talking on their cellphone while driving is modeling a behavior that even an undeveloped frontal lobe of the brain can realize is a bad idea.


Aaron Crowe is a writer in the San Francisco Bay Area who specializes in personal finance topics for