My father saved my life seconds before losing his own. I had been sitting between my parents in the front until he pushed me into the back seat of our Pontiac coupe just seconds before we crashed head-on with an army bus. In 1947, there were no seatbelts. My mother flew out the door and was left unconscious on the road. Protected in the back seat of the coupe, I was thrown with the car into a field of snow. The ambulance driver had picked up my mother and was about to drive off when he looked back at the wreck, saw my blond hair in the snow and ran into the field to save me. My life’s road was set that day.
At 16, I was afraid to learn to drive. I knew I could die in a car. I spent 12 months practicing with my mother. I wanted to be perfect, not just good, in order to survive. I later grew to be confident, controlled and focused when driving. I entered rallies, and in 1965 I won my first auto race in an open-wheeled Formula Ford. I raced against the best in the world in the first CanAm race at Mont-Tremblant, Quebec. The rules were almost nonexistent, and the speeds were too high. We were all learning about aerodynamics. I had added trim tabs and spoilers on my Merlyn Chev, which kept me safe. While flying over the hump on the back straight at a ridiculous speed, the car in front of me suddenly flew up in the air, becoming fully airborne. I drove right underneath it. The driver survived and my need for control had kept me safe.
My racing career got stalled after three years. While I was risking my life on the track, I had lost five friends in crashes on public roads. Two were at intersections, two were head-on collisions, and one was due to loss of control. It was clear that my next turn in the road should be driver training. I built a Young Drivers of Canada franchise, was made President of Young Drivers, and eventually was able to purchase the entire Young Drivers Franchise system in 1988.
Traffic collisions cost over $250 billion a year in North America. In 2006, 42,708 lives were lost in the United States due to auto accidents. How do you change a driving culture? Cultural changes happen when small groups of individuals do the right thing, inspiring others to do the same. The rise of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is one example. In his book “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell describes how few it takes to “make a difference.” In driver education, an understanding of the brain and cognitive training is the change we need.
The brain’s frontal lobe is crucial to driving — it controls judgment, problem-solving, reasoning, and anticipating consequences. The frontal lobe is also responsible for executive functions such as working memory, cognitive switching, and sustained attention. Brain-damaged patients and those with neurological disorders located in the frontal lobe often exhibit dangerous driving behavior. Deterioration in this part of the brain is a major reason that elderly drivers are accident-prone.
The frontal lobe is also the last part of the brain to develop, often not reaching maturation until a person’s early 20s. The inherent lack of judgment in teenagers leaves them doubly vulnerable — both to peer pressure, which can lead to driving under the influence, and to making poor decisions once on the road. Teenagers also get poor marks on tests of divided attention, justifying bans on cellphone use while driving and underscoring the need for passengers to respect a driver’s concentration.
Teenagers who lack judgment while driving also lack the ability to assess themselves. Research has shown that teens with high confidence levels, who believe they are better drivers than others, have a higher rate of crashes and risk-taking.
This explains why insurance companies let insurance rates drop at age 25, and why most car-rental companies don’t allow young drivers to rent their vehicles. A 2004 Time magazine article quotes Laurence Steinberg, a psychologist from Temple University, regarding teenagers: “The brain regions that put the brakes on risky, impulsive behavior are still under construction. The parts of the brain responsible for things like sensation seeking are getting turned on in big ways around the time of puberty, but the parts for exercising judgment are still maturing throughout the course of adolescence. So you’ve got this time gap between when things impel kids toward taking risks early in adolescence, and when things that allow people to think before they react come online.” He added, “It’s like turning on the engine of a car without a skilled driver at the wheel.”
My program, Young Drivers of Canada, offers CogniFit cognitive training products that accurately assess a driver’s safety. CogniFit includes 24 training sessions of 20 minutes each which improve divided attention, focus, short-term memory, assessment of speed and distance, changing plans, visual scanning, hand-eye coordination, reaction time, and three attitudes: risk-taking, obeying traffic regulations, and overconfidence.
Before we began using cognitive assessment and training, we believed that good driving was 40 percent experience (parental example) and 60 percent training. Today, we estimate that cognitive ability makes up 60 percent of a driver’s crash-risk. The remaining 40 percent is split equally between parental influence and driver training.
Parents who run stop signs, speed, or take chances with their children in the car serve as an example to their children. A PBS special, “Driving: Parents and Teens,” made a convincing case for parents to reconsider their driving habits. It also made a clear case for cognitive training for new drivers.
We expect that in the future, all driver’s education will involve cognitive training, just as society has adopted seat belts, daytime running lights, ABS brakes and electronic stability control, and has made drinking and driving unacceptable. Just as my father saved my life, we must make it our passion and commitment to save the lives of others through the best driving instruction possible, including providing brain-based education and training to young drivers.
Peter Christianson can be reached at pchristianson [at] youngdrivers.com