Teaching my son to drive exposes him to a high risk of death. He is as responsible as I was at 17, but his brain is not yet ready to prevent him taking chancesby Paul Broks / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
My youngest son is at the wheel. We’re bumping along the cracked runways of a disused airfield. It’s a sparse and grainy landscape, a scenario from a video game. Two or three other cars scuttle like bugs under the blind scrutiny of the derelict control tower. RAF Davidstow aerodrome is pitched, implausibly, at the northern edge of Bodmin moor. It was built in 1942 and closed three years later. They hadn’t bargained for the weather. In the 1950s it became a motor racing circuit and once hosted a Formula 1 race. But Cornwall isn’t Monaco. If it wasn’t the mist, it was the rain and the Atlantic gales. At the first meeting it was sheep down the back straight. Where Wellington bombers once hauled themselves into blank skies and dashing racers hurled their Connaughts and Cooper-Bristols through storm-blown chequered flags, we clatter the potholes in my wife’s Clio. But it’s a beautiful day.
I have mixed feelings about my son learning to drive. It feels wholesome and fatherly to be teaching him a practical skill, but my fear is that if he’s anything like I was at the age of 17 he won’t be fit to be on the road. I was a confident young man with well co-ordinated perceptual and motor skills, good reflexes and a sound knowledge of the highway code. What I lacked, as 17 year olds do, was a fully connected frontal lobe. Brain structure is not fixed at birth but follows phases of growth and pruning. Nature and nurture converge to modulate the size of brain cell populations and the integrity of their connections. It starts in the womb and continues through infancy, into adolescence and beyond with different areas of the brain developing at different rates. The frontal lobes, whose function, among other things, is to inhibit risky behaviour, are the last regions to mature. They do not reach full bloom until around the age of 25. Given that their frontal lobes are still under construction, it is perhaps not surprising that teenage drivers account for a disproportionate number of serious road traffic accidents. Research in the US shows that not only are teenagers four times more likely than older drivers to be involved in an accident, and three times more likely to die in one, but that the presence of other teenagers in the vehicle significantly increases the likelihood of a crash. The…