*The following is excerpted from an online article posted on ScienceDaily.
Research into why adolescent drivers are involved in motor vehicle crashes, the leading cause of injury and death among 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States, has often focused on driving experience and skills. But a new study suggests that development of the adolescent brain may play a critical role in whether a teenager is more likely to crash.
The study finds that slower growth in the development of working memory is associated with motor vehicle crashes, which points to cognitive development screening as a potential new strategy for identifying and tailoring driving interventions for teens at high risk for crashes.
The study, led by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania (APPC) and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), is the first longitudinal study of working memory development in relation to vehicle crashes. The paper “Working Memory Development and Motor Vehicle Crashes in Young Drivers” was published in JAMA Network Open.
The research examines data from 118 youth in Philadelphia who were part of a larger group that participated in a six-wave survey from when they were 10- to 12-year-olds, in 2005, until they were 18- to 20-year-olds, in 2013-14. The survey measured working memory development, as well as associated risk-related traits and behaviors. This group later participated in a follow-up survey on driving experience.
“We found that teens who had slower development in working memory were more likely to report being in a crash,” said the lead author, Elizabeth A. Walshe, Ph.D., who is a postdoctoral fellow at the Annenberg Public Policy Center and at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP.
Working memory, which develops through adolescence into the twenties, is a frontal lobe process associated with complex, moment-to-moment tasks essential to driving. “Safe driving involves scanning, monitoring, and updating information about the vehicle and environment while managing multiple subtasks (e.g., adjusting speed, steering, in-vehicle controls) and distractors (e.g., peer passengers and cell phones),” the researchers said in their paper. All of these tasks challenge working memory, especially when a young driver has not yet fully learned to automate many basic driving routines.
The researchers say the study results have important policy implications. While all 50 states have some type of graduated driver licensing (GDL) program that gradually lifts restrictions for young new drivers, the research suggests that individual assessments of adolescents’ cognitive development may play an important part, too.
“If our findings hold up in larger samples with diverse youth, we will need to start assessing cognitive abilities, such as working memory, to see if some adolescents are less ready for independent driving,” said Daniel Romer, Ph.D., research director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and a senior fellow at the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP. “There is considerable variation in working memory development during the teen years, and some teens may not be as ready to drive on their own without additional assistance.”