Mentally, teens drive best alone
By Steve Biddulph, as printed in The Sydney Morning Herald 11 January, 2007
The decision by the NSW Government to place a passenger limit on red P-plate drivers after 11 at night is a timely response to the anguish that communities feel about recurring multiple fatality accidents involving this age group.
This summer NSW has seen at least two such tragedies: the four young school leavers who died in Byron Bay in October, and three more at Glendenning in Sydney's west in November. But troll back through the memories, and most communities across Australia have suffered these multiple fatalities, which have shattered families and communities for years afterwards.
What gives the recommendations additional weight is an avalanche of new research showing that the adolescent brain may be incapable of the responsibilities we so readily allow in driving cars at speed, late at night and with a group of friends on board.
Brain-scanning technology has overturned our previous understanding of the teenage brain. Long assumed to be essentially adult in shape, it is now clear that the teenage brain is markedly immature and not in full adult form until as late as 25. In particular, 17-year-olds may be far from ready to handle driving tasks, especially when distracted or excited by others being in the car.
The teenage brain is half-developed, it can function well while calm, but lacks the ability to make good decisions when overloaded by stimuli. It is still likely to revert back to emotional decision-making when conditions are not ideal. Every parent knows that teenagers can sound good one minute and be complete idiots the next.
Young children make decisions from part of the brain called the amygdala, which is primarily an emotional centre. By about 25 we use a completely different part of the brain - the prefrontal cortex, and are able to use reasoning, and hold to this reasoning under considerable emotional pressure.
When teenagers behave poorly, its often because we have placed them out of their depth, mentally, to cope. We have simply misjudged what teens are capable of handling sexually, socially, and around alcohol and drugs, to name just a few areas.
Based on this new knowledge, it's clear that governments and parents have to provide more structure and boundaries that recede gradually as children get older, balancing the need for independence and mobility with keeping the young alive.
Luckily, motor accident data helps pinpoint where legislation can do the most good. A young person travelling alone in a car has a modest risk level, but if you add one passenger, the risk of fatality rises by 50 per cent. However, adding another passenger increases the risk by 160 per cent.
When children are in groups, something changes in the dynamics of conversation, attitude, behaviour, and consequently in accident and fatality rates. Allowing just one passenger would be the optimal for amenity and freedom, while reducing the most deaths.
Other nations have gone further. New Zealand has a complete curfew on young drivers after 10 at night, and this has significantly reduced deaths for many years. Many countries regard 17 as too young and require youngsters to be 18 to get a licence, and brain studies would suggest we save lives by every year longer that we wait.
The proposed NSW changes are conservative. Enforcement is an issue, but we already place speed and alcohol restrictions on young drivers, with good effect. We sometimes ask the law and police to do what parents have failed to do - the teaching and sometimes restricting of what children get up to is first a parent's job.
Rob Wells, the bereaved father who has campaigned so effectively to make the Government look at these facts, believes that what works best is a team approach between governments and parents. Parents generally welcome legislation that supports them in setting boundaries, they feel it gives them more leverage and permission to be firm with their children.
The problem is not a small one. Five Australians die every day on the roads, but 40 per cent are under 25. There are few sights as horrific as a smashed-up car full of dead and dying teenagers, and we must do everything in our ability to end this awful and recurring syndrome.
Hopefully, the Government will seize this opportunity to bring the law into line with what the research demonstrates. It won't end teenage road deaths, but it will greatly reduce the number. Passenger limits are a good beginning to a possible number of changes that will give teenage drivers a safer start on the road.
We can now evaluate whether this is enough, or whether further conditions, such as curfews or a raised driving age, are needed to keep young drivers alive.
Steve Biddulph is a psychologist and the author of Raising Boys. The TAC gratefully acknowledges his permission to reproduce this article.
This opinion piece was written when the NSW Government first introduced passenger limits on P Plate drivers in 2007. In NSW the one passenger condition applies to provisional licence holders disqualified for a driving offence. After the disqualification period, P Plate drivers are restricted to carrying no more than one passenger at all times while driving, for 12 months.