The objective of this essay is to examine the sometime risky and precarious driving behaviour of teenagers; the reasons behind the unacceptably high rate of accidents and near accidents when the driver is a teenager; and the possible interventions which identify the risky behaviour of the teenage driver and how it could possibly be managed.
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Not all novice/teenage drivers perform risky or dangerous manoeuvres. However, instances where the driver’s attention is being distracted from the road ahead by, for example, their passengers or using their mobile phone for texting, impacts on the unacceptably high rate of accidents and near accidents involving teenager drivers, according to Gonzales (2005) road traffic accidents in the US are the leading cause of teenager fatalities, accounting for 40% of deaths. Bingham et al (2015) stated that the majority of serious road traffic accidents occur when a teenager driver has one or more teenage passengers, suggesting that peer influence may be a contributory factor in the accident. Bingham & Shope (2005) further claimed that in the US teenagers have a higher rate of road traffic accidents than adult drivers, and more likely to die due to their accident acquired injuries, than from any other cause (Center for Disease Control & Prevention, 2014). It would appear, therefore, that it is highly possible that lack of driving experience, emotional immaturity and developmental stage along with a lack of attention (Lee et al, 2009) and a propensity to risk taking and showing off could be probable factors (Simons-Morton et al, 2011)
Bingham et al (2016) examined the effects of having teenage passengers in the vehicle with novice 16/17-year-old drivers, and the social influences on driving behaviour, such as taking risks and poor or late hazard anticipation and observation. A sample of 53 males took part in a driving simulator study to examine both solo driving and driving with passengers. However, the outcome of their study concurred with those of Chein et al (2010) in that the mere presence of a peer passenger increased risky driving behaviour. Bingham et al did admit, however, that “real life” driving would probably reveal that passenger pressure would increase the risky behaviour more significantly than during the study. However, a naturalistic study into teen driving attitudes, found no evidence of teenage passengers influencing the driver behaviour in a detrimental manner, or had a direct influence in crash/near crash incidents (Simons-Morton et al, 2011)
One of the contributing factors into crash/or near crash incidents in the lack of attention to road conditions and the anticipation of road hazards and the early avoidance of obstructions. Reason’s (1990) study into perception and anticipation of hazards has shown that social influence has less of a bearing, which is consistent with findings that there was a failure to execute skill-based behaviour, for example detecting the risk in a timely manner. It is possible that this is due to the necessary experiences and requisite skills not yet being fully developed from a learner environment where hazards are pointed out and risky driving behaviours are addressed and averted by the instructor.
A study by Gonzales et al (2005) examined 2420 fatal road traffic accidents in the US of which 158 fatalities (6.5%) were teenager drivers. Fatal car crashes involving the teenager drivers were epitomised by excess speed, recklessness, single-vehicle accidents, and contravening traffic law, suggesting that novice drivers bear considerable responsibility for their fatal crashes. Furthermore, nearly half of teenage drivers involved in fatal car crashes were not wearing their seat belts. These findings could be beneficial in establishing Graduated Driver Licensing Schemes where they are not already an option, such as Great Britain, and in improving driver education courses and road safety campaigns.
Research has confirmed that the greatest contributor to the high-level of crash risk of young drivers is in fact their novice status – their lack of practical solo driving experience. Novice drivers of all ages are shown to face this high risk when they first start driving independently (unsupervised). However, youth is also a contributor, with the youngest new drivers having the highest of inflated risks. While adolescent development influences the heightened sensation-seeking, and the increased importance of peers during that period of their life, the latest research also highlights how brain and hormone changes have an effect in other ways that have specific inferences for driving. This includes biological and neurological developmental changes that direct youths to be highly vulnerable to distractions, and also to fatigue – during daytime hours as well as after dark. Traditional driver training efforts focus on vehicle-handling skills for the practical driving test, which has some bearing on how the new driver can drive, but not necessarily on when and where they choose to drive.
Advances in understanding teenage development have also recognised other concerns for driving, separate to the acknowledged characteristics such as sensation-seeking and exaggerated effects of their peers. This includes vital neurobiological developments that influence the ability to regulate impulses, and therefore increase susceptibility to distractions (Johnson & Jones, 2011). Hormonal changes interrupt sleep patterns and the ability to achieve a deep sleep resulting in day time fatigue (Carskadon, 2011). Driving whilst tired is widespread in the United States, with about 30% of teenagers admitting to having driven whilst tired (National Sleep Foundation, 2011). High proportions of teenagers are known to suffer from a lack of sleep which is probably related to hormonal patterns (Groeger, 2006). Not having sufficient sleep is tangibly related to poor and untimely reaction rates, and fewer hours of sleep are a risk factor for increased crash rates in teenagers (Hutchens, Senserrick, & Jamieson, 2008). A comparison of two similar school districts in the US that differed in lesson start times found that the district with later start times had lower student accident rates (Vorona, Szklo-Coxe, & Wu, 2011)
A Graduate Driving Licence scheme, which has already been successfully introduced in several countries, including Australia, Northern Ireland, and Canada, would permit teenage drivers to acquire the essential driving skills under conditions of reduced risk before progressing onto more testing driving tasks, namely those which have been identified are those most likely to cause accidents. (Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, 2018) It would also allow drivers to gain driving experience and to mature physically, psychologically and socially before attaining a full driving licence, without restrictions. If introduced in Great Britain, the Graduate Driving Licence Scheme, is it claimed by the RAC, could reduce casualties involving novice drivers at the wheel by around 2000 incidents per annum by restricting the age of passengers (ie, no 15-24-year olds unless accompanied by an individual over the age of 25). This restriction would be for a period of 6-12 months, which is the period which a teenage driver is at most risk. After this restriction period, it is anticipated that the driver will have gained the necessary experience and maturity thereby reducing accidents/near accidents. (Kinnear, Lloyd, Helman, Husband, Scoons Jones Stradling, McKenna & Broughton, 2013) However, these restrictions do not take account of individual differences.
It is possible that individual differences amongst teenagers could play a role in whether or not they are risky drivers, for example anxious not to be socially excluded (Chein et al, 2010) or in pursuit of social rewards by complying with the passenger’s provocation or encouragement. Albert & Steinberg (2011) suggested that peer passengers may promote riskier driving by increasing the social rewards or incentives available, but that is not to say that all teenage drivers are susceptible to peer pressure purely for social reward or inclusion.
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It is recognised that driving a car is cognitively challenging and the driver’s primary undertaking is to pay attention to the road, its hazards, other traffic, and ultimately to drive legally and safely (Cegovnik et al, 2017). However, there is the possibility that a lack of attention, being distracted by peer passengers or outside distractions can be attributed to cognitive load. Cognitive Load refers to the level of cognitive resources required from the driver when another activity is competing for attention and attentiveness (Engstrom, 2013) It is possible, therefore, that cognitive distraction could occasionally happen in situations with high, as well as low, cognitive load, such as mind-wandering, worrying about home life/relationship situations, which is the internal driver distraction (Martens & Brouwer, 2013). Further, it is well documented according to Angell et al (2006) that a driver who takes their attention, or eyes, away from the road by texting, for example, will have a negative impact on their driving abilities and performance, and according to Hickman et al (2010) increase crash risks. However, talking to passengers or using a hands-free mobile phone to make and receive calls, according to naturalistic studies, does not increase crash risks through cognitive load. Nonetheless, it has been suggested that “cognitive load selectively impairs during sub-tasks that rely on cognitive control but leaves automatic performance unaffected” (Engstrom, Markkula, & Mera, 2017, p. 2). During their literature review, they found that studies confirmed their hypotheses that automatic performance is organic and often unconscious and is entrenched through repetition when learning to drive (for example changing gears at the same time as controlling the clutch). Therefore, a general, non-emotive conversation with a passenger would not detract from driving ability but using a non-hands-free mobile phone or an argument with a passenger does impact on cognitive load.
Studies have shown that tasks which involve taking the driver’s eyes away from driving such as texting, making and receiving phone calls (which are not hands free) and turning to passengers in the rear seats impair driving performance (Angell et al, 2006) however naturalistic studies have shown that using a hands-free mobile phone does not increase the crash risk associated with primary cognitive tasks
Differences in neurocognitive functioning may contribute to driving performance among young drivers. Attention is a key component in driving safely which relies on the executive function Incomplete maturation of cognitive and motor skills, including working memory, visual spatial attention and speed of information processing. Executive function steadily improves throughout adolescence and beyond (Luciana, Conklin, Hooper, & Yarger, 2004). Because driving requires significant attention to manage real-world distractions, including conversations with passengers, use of car controls or mobile phones, internal dialogue/mind wandering, and hazards that arise on the road (McNight & McKnight, 2003), immature executive functioning may interfere with driving performance. This could challenge the call for a Graduate Licence Scheme and suggest the delay teenagers’ being able to drive until have reached a satisfactory level of maturity.
One tactic which may allow parents/guardians to prolong their supervision is the use of in-vehicle video surveillance systems that can provide parents and teen drivers with constructive advice about their dangerous driving habits (Carney, McGehee, & Lee, 2010). This system may even be able to reduce the excess crash risk exhibited by teenage drivers, suggesting that improved parental monitoring of novice drivers can help to reduce the risks associated with early unsafe driving behaviour. However, the cost implicants, lack of parental responsibility and perceived intrusion by the driver may be prohibitive. If the in-car video was a mandatory component of the insurance policy, or its use contributed towards an insurance premium discount, then it is possible that novice drivers would have little option than to utilise the equipment and perhaps moderate their driving behaviour
However, the amount of teenager driver accidents and fatalities is unacceptably high, and several studies have proposed areas which could mitigate the incidents, such as further parental supervision via in-car videoing; educating teen drivers as to the risks of dangerous driving; and the introduction of Graduate Driving Schemes. Research backs up the assumption that driving is a skill which is acquired over time with maturation and experience, and guidance is evidently needed to encourage and promote safer driving practices and it is feasible that through skill-based risk reducing education this may be achievable. In addition to the mandatory UK theory and practical driving tests, it could be possible to introduce mandatory educational workshops which takes into account of hazard perception and peer passenger influences, which have to be accomplished prior to any insurance policy becoming effective.
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