There’s a poignant Subaru commercial from a few years ago in which a dad appears to be cautioning his 5-year-old daughter as she buckles into the driver’s seat and prepares to hit the road. In the last few moments the camera reveals that—outside of her father’s eyes, of course—the girl is a fully licensed teenager.
Parents might be justified in wringing their hands over their high-schoolers’ driving habits, though. A car accident is the most likely reason a teen won’t make it to adulthood. And teens are far more likely than adults to crash their cars while distracted.
In a study in the January issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers found that, compared with the risk of crashing when not performing these tasks, novice teen drivers were eight times more likely to crash or have a near-miss when dialing a phone; seven times more likely to crash when reaching for a phone or another object; almost four times more likely when texting; and three times more likely when eating.
But one of the most distracting things, according to some studies, is just having another teen in the car.
“In the presence of peers, teens will overvalue the short-term rewards of their decisions rather than the long-term consequences,” Dennis Durbin, scientific director of the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said in a conference on distracted driving in Washington yesterday.
Looking at the reasons behind teen car crashes, surprising differences emerge between the behaviors of male and female drivers. During his presentation, Durbin brought up a fascinating 2012 study on distraction and risk-taking among teen boys and girls.
For the study, which was published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia examined 5,470 crashes involving drivers aged 16 to 18 that took place between July 2005 and December 2007. They relied on quantitative and qualitative data from the National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey, and they limited their observations only to drivers who either drove alone or with a passenger between the ages of 14 and 20.
They focused on five types of actions that might have caused the collisions:
Inattention — daydreaming or otherwise focusing on internal thoughts
“Interior non-driving activity” — something inside the car interfered with attention, like looking at the other passengers, eating or drinking, reaching for objects, dialing the phone, or texting
Exterior factor — looking at something in traffic or something outside the vehicle
Aggressive acts — speeding, tailgating, or weaving
Illegal maneuvers — not obeying traffic laws, making illegal U-turns, etc...
The results say a lot about how the gender dynamics between teens influence risk-taking:
For the boys, the most common behavior precipitating a crash was aggressive driving. The boys were three times more likely to drive recklessly when there was a girl in the car than when they were driving alone, and slightly more likely than with a boy in the car.
They were also far more likely to turn their attention to something inside the car when the passenger was female, but, oddly, they were less likely to be distracted by something inside the car in the presence of another boy than when they were by themselves. Driving with a male peer did, however, increase the chance that they would do something illegal, more so than driving either alone or with a girl.
Overall, “Males were almost six times more likely to perform an illegal maneuver in the presence of peer passengers compared with driving alone,” they wrote.
The most common behavior associated with the girls’ crashes, meanwhile, was being distracted by something inside the car while driving with a boy passenger. Driving with male passengers was also correlated with the girls daydreaming or performing an illegal maneuver. The girls were less likely to do something illegal with another girl in the car, and they weren’t likely to drive aggressively in any situation.
There are a few limitations here, including the fact that the study didn’t include crashes that occurred between midnight and 6 a.m. What’s more, the first iPhone was released during the final year of the study, so if it had been conducted later the researchers might have seen a bump in texting.
It’s safe to conclude, though, that the presence of passengers seemed to increase the risk of distracted driving. “These findings suggest passengers may affect male driver crashes through both distraction and risk-promoting pathways. Conversely, passengers of female teen drivers appear to affect crashes primarily through internal distraction,” the researchers wrote.
Past research on poor teen decision-making has implicated the underdeveloped adolescent brain structure. Teens’ frontal lobes aren’t wired to the rest of their brains as well as those of adults are.
"It's the part of the brain that says: 'Is this a good idea? What is the consequence of this action?'" Harvard neurologist Frances Jensen told NPR. "It's not that they don't have a frontal lobe. And they can use it. But they're going to access it more slowly."
Teen brains are also more sensitive to rewards, so they may seek out new sensations more actively than adults do.
So it could be that having opposite-sex passengers in the car is like adding another, hormonal, variable to a brain that is already performing a half-baked high-wire act.
“Drivers were also particularly distracted in the presence of opposite-gender passengers,” the researchers wrote, “possibly because of the increasing importance and novelty of developing opposite-gender friendships and romantic partnerships during this developmental period.”
This isn’t to say that risk-prone teens should be banished to some bucolic stretch of Amish country, which happens to lack cars, iPhones, or anything more distracting than an unusually snug prairie dress. Though I’m sure that’s an option some parents of teens have considered.
The thing is, 37 states and D.C. ban all cellphone use by inexperienced or teen drivers, and even more states prohibit texting for all drivers. But according to one study out of Texas A&M University, it’s not clear that these laws actually reduce the number of car accidents. So we might also look at the other factors that cause teens to take risks or lose focus on the road. And according to studies like this one (and this one, and this one), those factors include the “movements or actions of their passengers,” in a time of life that’s already a confusing, intoxicating chemical soup.