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Expert on risky behavior in kids recommends increase in driving age

by Carolyn Pennington - September 29, 2008

Dr. Yifrah Kaminer has spent years studying risky behavior in kids, and he’s convinced 16 is too young to start driving.

“Auto accidents are the biggest killer of young people in the U.S.,” says Kaminer, co-director of research in the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the Health Center.

“Even though Connecticut’s new state laws requiring curfews and more training for 16- and 17-year-old drivers are well meaning, they won’t really be effective, because they don’t consider the developmental roots of high-risk behaviors in young people.”

The Insurance Institute of America shares the same concern. It recently launched a national push to raise the driving age to 17 or 18.

The institute cites statistics from the National Highway Safety Administration showing that the rate of crashes per mile driven for 16-year-old drivers is almost 10 times the rate for drivers ages 30 to 59.

New Jersey, the only state with a minimum driving age of 17, has reported a reduction of teenage driving fatalities. It has 4.4 deaths per 100,000 youth attributed to driving, compared with Connecticut at 20.7 deaths.

As young people reach puberty, Kaminer says, they also experience a surge of more than 1,000 percent in hormone levels compared to the pre-puberty period. These hormones cause significant changes in adolescent behaviors, including increased impulsivity (the tendency to act out quickly as a response to internal or external stimuli, regardless of potential negative consequences), as well as increased aggression and poor judgment (such as the notion that ‘nothing is going to happen to me’ when weaving through traffic or driving too fast).

Kaminer also says new neurobiological evidence shows that in teenagers, the pre-frontal cortex, the area of the brain essential for inhibitory behavior and critical thinking, is still not fully developed.

The typical adolescent thrives on increased stimulation generated by the neurotransmitter dopamine (the “fuel” for excitement).

Dr. Yifrah Kaminer, co-director of research in the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the Health Center.
Dr. Yifrah Kaminer, co-director of research in the Division of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry at the Health Center, says that in teenagers, the area of the brain essential for critical thinking is not yet fully developed. Photo by Carolyn Pennington

Because of their relative deficiency of serotonin or “braking fluid,” adolescents tend to respond to caution or danger signals too slowly and often too late.

“Putting an individual with this inherent biological handicap behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle, with distractions ranging from peers who often drink or ‘goof off’ and are not restrained by safety belts, is irresponsible and potentially deadly,” says Kaminer.

“The proof lies in the fact that accidents involving cars driven by 16- to 19-year-olds account for the deaths of 13 teenagers every day.”

Kaminer notes that the minimum age for renting a car is 25 years.

“Isn’t it ironic that the industry reached that conclusion a long time ago, even before brain-imaging technology became so pervasive and persuasive?” he asks. “Why is the legal age for drinking alcohol 21 years, while the legal driving age is 16 and even lower in some states?”

Kaminer is reaching out to local state legislators in hopes of garnering support in the General Assembly. He has also been talking to community groups about the issue, and has speaking engagements planned at the University of Massachusetts and Yale.

When he speaks to parents, he points out the obvious safety benefits, as well as saving on hefty insurance rates, car payments, and fuel costs. He also suggests an aggressive awareness campaign to inform or empower parents to “just say no” to their car-loving teen.

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