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Mentally, teens drive best alone

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					Mentally, teens drive best alone
Steve Biddulph
Printed in The Sydney Morning Herald, January 11, 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. He has granted
the TAC permission to reproduce this article.

				
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