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Teens more likely to take risks with peers in the passenger seat

Mary Lou Jay

Many states now have laws limiting the number of passengers that a new teen driver can take along for the ride. The results of a study conducted by psychologists at Temple University show why such restrictions might be a good idea. According to these researchers, younger drivers experience more stimulation in the part of the brain that involves rewards when they take chances in front of their peers.

The study used MRI technology to measure the brain activity of 40 test subjects who took part in simulated driving activity. The participants included 14 adolescents between ages 14 and 18; 14 young adults between 19 and 22; and 12 adults between 24 and 29. Their task was to decide whether to brake at a yellow traffic signal at 20 intersections in the driving simulation — that is, whether to chance a possible crash in the intersection or to brake and wait for the light to go green again.

The test subjects were tested alone and then retested with two friends of the same gender watching in an adjacent room. The psychologists found that during their solo sessions, adolescents and adults behaved comparably. But once adolescents knew their peers were watching, they took significantly more risks. That wasn’t the case with the young adult or adult groups.

Brain measurements showed that when their peers were present, adolescents showed greater activation in reward-related regions of the brain and that action in these regions predicted subsequent risk-taking. Whether or not peers were present, the brain areas associated with cognitive control showed less activity in adolescents than in adults.

The risk-taking behavior of younger teens is undoubtedly a contributing factor to the high vehicle accident rate in that age group. Their lack of experience, coupled with a greater potential for risky conduct, causes them to be hit with higher auto insurance rates until they establish good driving records.

Teen drivers have higher rates of both fatal and non-fatal accidents than older adults; the crash rate per mile driven for teens 16 to 19 is four times the risk for drivers age 20 and older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). And, according to IIHS, 35 percent of deaths among teens between 16 and 19 years old in 2007 were related to cars.

The Temple study could help reduce these numbers. The researchers believe their findings will increase our understanding of why teenagers are influenced by their friends to engage in risky behavior behind the wheel. This could help experts devise ways to teach teen drivers how to respond to risky situations.

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