Does your teen constantly lose his stuff? Have trouble remembering to turn in her homework? Get easily distracted? If so, pause before handing over the car keys.
That’s the takeaway of mounting research suggesting that young drivers with poor working memory are significantly more likely to have a car accident. Working memory is the cognitive skill that enables people to pay attention in real time and make decisions in the face of distractions.
“When you’re driving, you have to integrate what is going on with the road and street lights and traffic with what’s on the radio and your passengers, all in a way that enables you to drive safely,” says Daniel Romer, PhD, research director at the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. “That all challenges your working memory.”
Automobile crashes are the leading cause of injury and death for U.S. adolescents, killing 2,300 annually.
Risk generally tends to fade with young adulthood. Even a novice 22-year-old has a lower chance of crashing than an equally novice 16-year-old. Since certain areas of the brain, including those that control working memory, don’t fully develop until early adulthood, Romer’s team began to wonder if crash risk had something to do with brain development.
They followed 118 youth from ages 11 and 13 to 18 and 20, assessing working memory annually. When they followed up 2 years later with a survey about their driving experiences, about 30% had been in at least one accident. Those who had developed working memory more slowly were more likely to have crashed, according to the study published in Jama Network.
“People tend to think adolescents are just reckless, but it turns out you can’t generalize,” Romer says. “Developmentally, one 16-year old can be wildly different than another.”
Previous studies have linked poor working memory with reckless and inattentive driving. One, published in 2019, found young drivers with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), which often comes with working memory deficits, receive more traffic tickets and are 62% more likely to crash within a month of getting their license.
But Romer notes that practice can help.
“Having a weak working memory is a major problem if you don’t have skills, but if you have been driving for a while, things do start to get automated,” he says, noting that most states now prohibit new drivers from driving under high-risk conditions, such as with friends in the car or driving after midnight.
He envisions a day when driver’s tests include working memory assessments, pediatricians (who in some states must sign off before a teen gets a license) are armed with better screening tools to identify crash risk, and parents can offer their teens driving simulations to bolster working memory skills.
In the meantime, don’t take too lightly the decision to let your teen get a license.
“If a parent realizes that their child has trouble paying attention or holding things in memory, they should take extra care,” he says.
By the Numbers
2,364. Number of teens in the United States who died in car crashes in 2017.
300,000. Number of teens in the United States treated in emergency rooms in 2017 for injuries received in car crashes.
>2x. Motor vehicle death rate for male drivers ages 16 to 19, more than two times higher than for females that age.
1.5x. Crash rate for 16-year-olds is 1.5 times higher than for 19-year-olds.
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