The April issue of US News & World Report brings to light once again the poor safety record of teen drivers and presents several possible remedies. It is not, though, the problem that needs our immediate attention. It is, rather, the question. We keep asking, “How can we make teens better drivers?” In fact, this question has no easy answer because it is not age which is the primary cause of their danger. It is a lack of experience. Even if we delayed licensing drivers until they were 18 years of age, they would still have zero experience behind the wheel and this makes all the difference in the world.
Human decision making is composed of two crucial elements: rational thinking and our emotions. As it turns out, our emotions play a critical role in effective decision making. Two of my favorite phrases are, “Good judgment comes from experience; experience comes from bad judgment;” and “We learn more from our failures than our successes.” Catchy as these might be, they are also based in neurological fact. Both the anterior cingulate cortex and the nucleus accumbens, in conjunction with a brain chemical called dopamine help regulate our emotions and are highly effective in teaching us from our failures. Often, when we have a “funny feeling” that something is wrong it is because our brain’s predictor neurons have sensed something amiss in patterns we are used to seeing. Though our rational mind is unable to identify or explain this funny feeling, our emotions—our fear in this case—in response to dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens and the anterior cingulate cortex, are able to quantify the anomaly and create physiological responses in our body through the function of the hypothalamus. Human decision making at its very core is a function of the rational (aged related judgment) and the emotional responses we have based on experience.
The net effect of this very brief biology lesson is that only experience can begin to create normal patterns for our brain to use when evaluating new situations. Good judgment, it turns out, really does come from experience. Unfortunately, the accumulation of experience often involves the exercise of bad judgment.
So how can we reframe the question of teen driving if the only way to facilitate improvement in teen driving skills is to let them gain experience by driving? The question can no longer be, “How can we make teens better drivers,” it must become, “How can we keep teens safer when they are driving?” Two different questions each with their own set of solutions. The new question allows us to shift responsibility for their safety from their driving skills to the skills of other (more experienced) drivers.
For example, as I come to a halt at a four way stop I might see a car approaching from my right. It is normal to assume that the other driver will see the four-way stop and decelerate accordingly. I might then proceed even as that car yet approaches the intersection. However, if I knew that the driver was a teenager—inexperienced—I might delay my takeoff a few moments longer to ensure the youth intends to decelerate and stop. All I need, as the more experienced driver in this mobile confrontation, is to know that the other driver is new behind the wheel. I will gladly stay out of his way if I know he’s there but I can’t be helpful if I don’t have the information I need to make such a decision.
What if it were the law that for two years after getting a driver’s license all drivers had to have a green strobe light on their roof—similar to the small white strobes now found on the tops of school buses? Armed with this knowledge, we can shift the onus from the inexperienced driver—from whom we should only expect mistakes and failure as they put in hours behind the wheel—to the experienced driver who has the capacity to use this information to give the youth a little extra room on the road.
All the policies and initiatives in the world won’t mitigate the simple need of new drivers to acquire experience. But one simple initiative can help more experienced drivers stay out of their way and save countless lives.