The youngest drivers are getting more dangerous behind the wheel, and technology is to blame, according to a study released today by the Texas Transportation Institute.
Drivers between the ages of 15 and 17 who have at least one teenaged passenger in the car are nearly eight times more likely to cause a fatal accident than driver between the ages of 18 and 24.
That is up from less than six times more likely to cause a fatal crash ten years ago.
"We're really losing ground," lead investigator Russell Henk said. "Their relative risk has grown substantially over the last decade as opposed to improved."
Henk says the greater danger posed by young distracted drivers comes during a decade when the overall number of fatal traffic accidents has been declining. Henk says the total number of fatal crashes involving teens has also declined, at the same time that the relative risk for young drivers has 'increased substantially.'
He says that the major cause is the distractions brought on by hand held devices and the proliferation of technology inside of the newest cars.
"Inside a vehicle today with 15 to 17 year olds, there are things happening today that didn't happen ten years ago," he said. "There are a lot of distractions, a lot of social media, and they haven't had enough experience to deal with it."
Researchers at the Institute, which is part of Texas A&M University, say the problem stems from both the relative inexperience of young drivers, plus the way the brain develops.
"Judgment and decision making activities are centered in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, the region of the brain which is last to develop and isn't fully developed until about age 25," he said. "Consequently, teen drivers lack full adult capabilities of understanding and avoiding the negative consequences of risky driving behavior."
Researchers say this will have implications for the 'graduated drivers licenses' which most states have introduced in recent years.
"I think we would have expected a marked improvement (in teen accident rates) as those types of licenses have been phased in, but again, that hasn't solved it, so this is going to require more time and attention as we move forward."