As reported by the New Haven Register, April 27, 2008.

Only Sure Way To Cut Fatalities Is To Raise Age, Experts Say

By Abram Katz

The new driving law enacted to cope with a recent rash of grisly teen accidents may make parents, legislators and the public happy, but none of the statute’s provisions will significantly lower adolescent fatalities in car crashes, psychological and medical experts said.

The deaths of three teenaged boys in a car crash in the Westfield Connecticut Post Mall parking lot in February provided impetus for the bill, which the governor signed into law last week.

But experts doubt the law will make much difference.

The brains of 16- and 17-year-olds are simply not sufficiently mature to make crucial decisions that mean the difference between a safe drive and a desperate ride on a Life Star helicopter, they said.

It’s not a question of intellect, but the physical state of the teenagers’ maturing brains, doctors said. Still-developing brains are often unable to put reason before impulse, they said.

Many characteristic teen behaviors — the urge to show off, distractibility and inability to delay immediate gratification — are exactly the reasons that young adolescents don’t belong behind the steering wheel of a car, they said.

Only one simple measure will lower the rate of crashes among 16 and 17 year olds, experts said.

Raise the driving age.

“Kids don’t think, they act. I would raise the driving age, at a minimum to 18. As far as I’m concerned it should be 21,” said Dr. Yifrah Kaminer, co-director of research in the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Alcohol Research Center at the University of Connecticut Health Center.

Kaminer characterized the new driving law as merely “rearranging the furniture on the deck of the Titanic. Punishment is not even close to the right solution,” he said.

Kaminer conducts research on the changes that take place in the brains of adolescents, using sophisticated magnet resonance and other types of scanners.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 4,800 teens between the ages of 16 to 19 die annually in car crashes in the U.S. In the ages 10 to 24, car crashes are the second leading cause of death. Homicide claims 5,570 a year. Suicide is responsible for 4,599 deaths.

A major factor behind these figures is the chemical turmoil in the adolescent brain, Kaminer said.

“The more we understand the brain, the more we need to redo the paradigm of adolescent behavior,” he said.

Intellect is secure by 16, but emotions are undergoing a metamorphosis. The brain reaches its final state at about age 25, he said.

Meanwhile, “Impulsivity is common to all adolescents. It’s an innate trait, as is the rapid response to external stimuli,” Kaminer said.

When boys go through puberty, their testosterone levels increase 18 fold, he said. Girls experience eight times more estrogen. These naturally produced steroids explain the irritability, moodiness and unpredictability of the average teen, he said.

“All sorts of changes go on in the brain to make it more efficient,” he said.

All brains contain the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. “Dopamine is like the gas pedal and serotonin is the brakes,” Kaminer said.

The ratio of dopamine to serotonin (gas pedal to brakes) is highest during adolescence, he said.

Consequently, adolescents often complain of being “bored” because dopamine in the prefrontal cortex paradoxically heightens inhibition. So teens may feel semi-depressed, bored and in great need of stimulation, Kaminer said.

Putting a person in this condition in a 2-ton vehicle capable of traveling at 100 mph is clearly an unwise idea, he said. No amount of license suspensions, increased fines and other punishments will alter the fundamental issues, Kaminer said.

The CDC found that 30 percent of teens have at some point been passengers in cars driven by people who have been drinking. Seventy-four percent of the drinkers do not use seat belts.

“Adolescence is a developmental phase preparing for adulthood. There is a lot of trial and error, which leads to bad consequences,” Kaminer said. “The adolescent is testing his resistance to impulsivity, and beginning to control his behavior. This is a very volatile period and they should stay away from cars. This should be a parent’s decision.”

Raising the age of obtaining a driving license to 18 is probably sufficient to ensure a lower rate of crashes, deaths and injuries, said Dr. Phillip A. Brewer, Quinnipiac University medical director, former emergency room doctor and legislative liaison for the Connecticut College of Emergency Physicians.

Brewer has seen the horrific results of car crashes involving teens.

“I’ve seen a 17-year-old who skipped class, was driving, and ran his car under a stopped truck. He was brought to the same center where his father was a surgeon. That’s how the doctor identified the body,” he said.

Emergency doctors see a dispiriting flow of teen car-crash victims with traumatic brain injury, paralysis, fractures, broken teeth, facial wounds, lacerations and soft tissue damage.

Sometimes they cannot be saved.

“The bill is a hodge podge of approaches, none of which are proven to reduce the crash or death rate,” Brewer said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found in 2004, the latest data available, that 16 year olds are involved in significantly more accidents than drivers 17 to 49.

The 16 year olds have the highest rate of driver error, speeding and multiple passengers in fatal crashes. Fifty-two percent of deadly crashes by 16-year-olds involved single vehicles, compared to 39 percent in 20 to 49 year olds.

“...Sixteen year olds have...the most limited driving experience and an immaturity that often results in risk-taking behind the wheel,” the NHTSA wrote in a 2006 report.

Brewer said cutting the curfew by an hour, requiring parents to take two hours of driving education, increasing fines and penalties, and other aspects of the law are essentially useless.

Police have no way of knowing how old drivers are, and cannot stop cars to check the legality of passengers, unless the authorities have probable cause, Brewer said.

“Cell phones are obvious, and that law is not enforced. Age is not obvious, so how do you enforce the laws?” he said.

“Raising the age is the most enforceable, cheapest, surest method to reduce the crash and death rate,” Brewer said. “I predict that this law will not lower the death rate. In two or three years we’ll be revisiting the same issues,” he said.

Even driving instructors have qualms about the new law.

“This is a feel-good law. It’s ambiguous,” said Michael D’Amato, owner of the Nationwide Driving School in West Hartford.

The law doubles the required hours of on-road instruction from 20 to 40. The typical 38-hour driving course devotes eight hours to actual driving. Parents are supposed to supply the remaining 12 hours, but there’s no way to make sure that they do, D’Amato said.

Driving schools will continue to provide eight hours of driving in 38-hour courses, giving parents 32 hours of additional teaching responsibility.

“Many parents happily comply. Other parents are nervous wrecks and won’t get into a car with a teenage driver. So they’re not getting even 20 hours,” D’Amato said.

“The state’s trying to balance everything by putting the onus on parents,” he said.

Today’s young drivers have far greater freedom than beginning drivers of previous decades, he said. They must cope with a greater volume of traffic, and today’s cars run so smoothly that the old rattles and vibrations that used to signal dangerous speed are no longer there, D’Amato said.

“They see ads on television. ‘Zoom, zoom, zoom,’” he said.

D’Amato said the new law finally “puts teeth into driving rules for the first time. Sixteen and 17-year-olds take a lot more risks. They’ve known that for decades,” he said.

Raising the driving age to 18 would not be tolerated and is politically implausible, he said.

“It would be a monumental pain. They should make education a little tougher and we need more enforcement. The 40-hour mandate is nice, but there’s no way to enforce it,” he said.

Come August, parents will also be required to take two hours of driving instruction in parallel with their 16 and 17 year olds. Most of the time will be spent explaining the new law, D’Amato said. The rest of the curriculum has not been set.

“Kids are always going to get killed when they get into a car. Eighteen would just delay that. As long as kids and cars get together, there are going to be fatalities,” D’Amato said.