Slower growth in working memory linked to teen driving crashes

Research into why adolescent drivers are involved in motor vehicle crashes, the leading cause of injury and death among 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States, has often focused on driving experience and skills.

But a new study from Elizabeth A. Walshe, a postdoctoral fellow at Penn’s Annenberg Public Policy Center (APPC) and the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP; Dan Romer of APPC; and Flaura Winston of CHOP and the Perelman School of Medicine, suggests that adolescent brain development may play a critical role in whether a teenager is more likely to crash. 

Teenager in a car's driver seat, looking over their shoulder.

The study finds that slower growth in the development of working memory is associated with motor vehicle crashes, which points to cognitive development screening as a potential new strategy for identifying and tailoring driving interventions for teens at high risk for crashes.

This is the first longitudinal study of working memory development in relation to vehicle crashes. The paper, “Working Memory Development and Motor Vehicle Crashes in Young Drivers,” was published in JAMA Network Open.

The research examines data from 118 youth in Philadelphia who were part of a larger group that participated in a six-wave survey from when they were 10- to 12-year-olds, in 2005, until they were 18- to 20-year-olds, in 2013-14. The survey measured working memory development, as well as associated risk-related traits and behaviors. This group later participated in a follow-up survey on driving experience.

“We found that teens who had slower development in working memory were more likely to report being in a crash,” says Walshe, the lead author.

Read more at Annenberg Public Policy Center.