A study has claimed that teenage drivers may be more likely to have road accidents because their memory is less effective at multitasking and spotting hazards.

Researchers suggest that the development of the adolescent brain may play a critical role in the ability and safety of adolescents behind the wheel.

Previous studies into why younger drivers seem more likely to have accidents have largely focused on driving experience and skills.


However, working memory is a brain process that is vital to complex moment-to-moment tasks such as driving and continues to develop throughout adolescence.

In the US-based study, cognitive neuroscientist Elizabeth Walshe from the University of Pennsylvania and colleagues found that slower growth in the development of working memory is linked with motor vehicle crashes.

The findings imply that cognitive development screening could be used to identify teens at high risk for crashes and tailor driving interventions accordingly. 

‘We found that teens who had slower development in working memory were more likely to report being in a crash,’ Dr Walshe said.


‘Safe driving involves scanning, monitoring and updating information about the vehicle and environment while managing multiple subtasks and distractors.’

‘All of these tasks challenge working memory, especially when a young driver has not yet fully learned to automate many basic driving routines.’

Adolescent drivers are at a higher risk of crashes, injuries and mortality in comparison with other age groups. 

Some of this risk can be explained by poor skills and inexperience, previous studies suggested, with crash rates highest in the first six months of independent driving.

Even among equally novice drivers, however, the risk of crashing is age-graded.


‘Not all young drivers crash. So we thought, what is it about those who are crashing?’ asked Dr Walshe.

The answer, she thought, could lie in variabilities in working memory development. 

‘Given this age-graded risk, individual variation in development is likely associated with crash risk, but its nature and contribution to this risk [was] not known.’

Previous research had highlighted that there is a link between lower working memory capacity and reckless and inattentive driving, crashes and poor performance on simulated driving tasks.


In their new study, Dr Walshe and colleagues measured the working memories of 118 adolescents each year from the ages of 11–13, 14–16 and 18–20.

They then looked for links between working memory and the driving history of the 84 participants who passed their tests.

Drivers were surveyed about their driving experience, crash history and behaviours behind-the-wheel, as well as whether they use their mobile phones while driving.

The researchers found that drivers aged around 17 had a higher crash rate than drivers aged closer to 20 when they began to drive independently.


However, crash histories did not appear to be linked with the number of years that each motorist had been driving, as the results suggested that a slower working memory was linked with teenagers crashing within three years of learning to drive.

‘Adolescents with a divergent trajectory of working memory growth had a greater likelihood of being involved in a crash,’ said Dr Walshe.

This trend remained even when the researchers controlled for other risk-related factors, such as reckless driving, drug use.

‘Furthermore, the model remained robust with the addition of IQ.’

The scientists said that assessing working memory during adolescence may help to identify at-risk teen drivers and provide interventions such as driving aids or training.


Such measures could help to address limitations in the working memory-related skills that are critical for safe driving as needed.

‘There is considerable variation in working memory development during the teen years, and some teens may not be as ready to drive on their own without additional assistance,’ author of the paper Daniel Romer concluded. 

‘This research points to the fact that crashes are predictable and preventable,’ said paper co-author Flaura Winston.

‘A clinician could identify teens who will be at an increased risk and use ‘precision prevention’ to tailor anticipatory guidance so that young drivers achieve independent mobility in a safe way,’ she added.

Professor Walshe added that such interventions could include different types of driving lessons, or driving restrictions tailored not to a set age but an appropriate level of development.

The full findings of the study were published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

-Daily Mail