13 Sep Slower Working Memory in Adolescence Associated With Motor Vehicle Crashes
MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
Elizabeth Walshe, PhD
Research Post-Doctoral Fellow
Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP)
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study?
Response: Motor vehicle crashes are a major public health concern and are the leading cause of death for adolescents in the US and other countries. Much of the research into why young driver crash rates are so high has focused on the role of driving experience and skills. But even among equally novice drivers, crash risk is still higher for younger novice drivers (17 year old new drivers have a higher crash risk than 20 year old new drivers). This suggests that crashes are related to development, and this is the focus of our research.
We know from the field of neuroscience that the frontal lobe of the brain is still developing across adolescence and into adulthood along with some cognitive abilities. One of these cognitive abilities, called working memory is particularly important for managing complex tasks, such as driving. It allows us to monitor and update information in the moment (e.g. monitor and update information about the environment and the vehicle), and attend to multiple subtasks simultaneously (like multitasking to control the steering and speed, as well as other vehicle controls, perhaps while talking to a passenger or listening to the radio). Working memory has been shown to develop later, and at different rates for different people: some teens develop at a faster rate, and some teens develop a little later, even as late as the mid-twenties. In parallel, while crash rates are high for teen drivers, we also know that not all teen drivers crash. So what is it about those who do crash? Could this be related to their developing working memory? That question is what motivated this study.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?
Response: We examined data from 118 youth in Philadelphia who were part of a larger study that measured working memory development, as well as other associated risk-related traits and behaviors, across 6 time points during adolescence, from when they were 10- to 12-year-olds until they were 18- to 20-year-olds. This group then also participated in a follow-up survey on driving experience, where we asked if they had been involved in a motor vehicle crash. Of the 118 participants, 84 had gotten a license to drive, and of those, 25 (29%) had had a crash. When we looked at the trends in working memory development across adolescence, we found that teen drivers who had slower development in working memory compared to their peers, were more likely to report being in a crash.
This finding points to cognitive development screening as a potential new strategy for identifying young drivers at risk for crashes, and for tailoring driving interventions to improve driver safety.
MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?
Response: This study found that slower working memory development in adolescence 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.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work?
Response: Future research should replicate these findings in a larger and more diverse sample, but also consider the role that ongoing cognitive development during adolescence might play in learning the complex skill of driving.
Walshe EA, Winston FK, Betancourt LM, Khurana A, Arena K, Romer D. Working Memory Development and Motor Vehicle Crashes in Young Drivers. JAMA Netw Open. Published online September 13, 20192(9):e1911421. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2019.11421
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