NEW YORK – Every day, many teens do something potentially deadly — something the National Safety Council reports as the leading cause of death among youth. What they’re doing is getting behind the wheel.
Many teens say they feel that good driving is not a matter of age and maturity, but having enough practice behind the wheel. “You need the same amount of experience no matter what your age,” 17-year-old Sarah Brown told FOXNews.com.
In almost all U.S. states teens can get their driver’s license at 16. But a Gallup Poll (search) conducted last December found that nearly 61 percent of Americans think that's too young.
“More often than what age people start driving is the process in place to teach people how to drive properly and the testing people go through. And I think that if we have a rigorous test, then 16 is just fine,” Alex Koroknay-Palicz (search), president of the National Youth Rights Association, told FOX News.
Statistically, driving is one of the most dangerous things a teen can do. A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration federal study showed that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 20.
The majority of teen accidents do not result from drag racing and substance abuse, but are usually because of inexperience behind the wheel. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that nationally, only a quarter of fatal teen crashes are alcohol related.
“If you have a good teacher and your parents want to help you learn, that’s what makes you a good driver — not your age,” said Brown.
But scientific studies challenge this theory.
Recent brain imaging studies by the National Institute of Mental Health and UCLA (search) have found that the brain is developing much later than previously thought. The brain is still developing until a person is about 25 years old.
The NIMH says that more myelin (search) (the material, that encloses axons and nerve fibers in the brain) implies “more mature, efficient connections within gray matter.” Teens, however, have less myelination in the frontal cortex than adults. This points to less mature cognitive processing and other "executive" functions. Executive functions are important in allowing teens to think things through more thoroughly before they act them out.
This brain research suggests that hormones aren't the only reason why teens may act emotionally or make rash decisions. And this psychological development shines light on much more than why parents and teens are often arguing. It might be the reason teens have so many problems on the roads. Just as some teens fight more with their parents than others, the psychological maturity of a teen can vary greatly from driver to driver.
“A lot of it depends on the maturity of the teen, but that’s not enough. They need to develop those motor skills associated with driving,” John Townsend, of AAA (search) Public Affairs for the D.C. Metro Area, told FOXNews.com.
Another major contributor to young drivers’ behaviors is seeing examples of good driving. “The most important aspect is the parents. Sometimes we aren’t the best examples,” said Townsend.
One solution is graduated licensing, a program that restricts nighttime driving for teens, cell phone usage while driving, and the number of passenger in a teen’s vehicle. After a certain amount of time the teen gets the full rights of a licensed driver.
“The fact is that the 16 year olds are inexperienced, so if you add in graduated licensing, where they have more time with the learners permit and more time with the supervision of a parent or guardian that can supervise their driving, then they can be much better prepared to be on our roads as a driver,” Mary Ann Viverette (search), chief of police in Gaithersburg, Md., told FOX News.