Study Explores How Teens Manage Risk While Driving

teen boy driving

Though teens represent just 14% of the population, they account for about 30% of the costs of car accident injuries, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2011, 2,650 teens died in car accidents, with 292,000 treated in emergency rooms for injuries sustained in car accidents.

Understanding how the brain responds to the risks and rewards of driving may help parents better train their teens to be safe drivers. A new study published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience has found that teens’ brains may respond differently to risk when a parent is in the car.

How Parents’ Presence Changes Teen Drivers’ Brains

Researchers asked 14-year-olds to complete a simulated driving task while functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machines tracked blood flow in the teens’ brains. In one trial, teens “drove” alone, but in another trial, teens’ mothers watched them “drive.”

Researchers found that teens who performed the driving task alone had increased blood flow to the ventral striatum when they ran a yellow light. This brain region is more sensitive to rewarding stimuli during adolescence than at any other time. This suggests that risk taking may feel especially rewarding to teens.

A parent’s presence, though, could mitigate the rewarding sensations associated with risk taking. When a teen’s mother was present as he or she ran a yellow light, there was no increase in blood flow to the ventral striatum. The decreased reward associated with risk taking also gave teens less incentive to take risks. Teens hit their brakes at yellow lights more frequently when their mothers were present.

A brain region associated with cognitive control, the prefrontal cortex, also showed more activity when a parent watched. This suggests that the presence of a parent can encourage a teen to exhibit more control over his or her behavior.

Overall, a parent’s presence reduced a teen’s rate of risk taking from 55% to 45%.


  1. Teen drivers: Get the facts. (2014, October 07). Retrieved from
  2. This is your teen’s brain behind the wheel. (2015, April 22). Retrieved from

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  • Amy H

    Amy H

    April 27th, 2015 at 11:16 AM

    So basically we have to be available to ride around with our kids until they have kids of their own? ;)

  • Frank


    April 27th, 2015 at 3:20 PM

    I am seriously all for telling my kids to leave their cell phones in the trunk while they are driving because I think that they are too much of a distraction for most of them to handle. I know that they are going to be great for emergency situations but think about how many kids have probably hurt themselves or others just because they couldn’t wait to text or something like that. Losing your life is not worth checking on the small and insignificant things like that and if it is too much of a temptation then you should just ask them to leave it somewhere where they will not be distracted by it.

  • Lacey


    April 28th, 2015 at 5:19 PM

    If we know that there are so many teens who are unable to handle the responsibilities of driving then why not raise the driving age and take away that privilege from them?

    It is something that we have all become too accustomed to, losing teen drivers in the blink of an eye. so it seems as if the safer thing to do would be to raise the legal driving age until they are mature enough to handle more of the responsibility that comes with operating a vehicle.

  • Kyle


    April 29th, 2015 at 10:59 AM

    While the presence of mom or dad seems to reduce the risk taking activities I am pretty sure that the presence of friends in the car is going to do quite the opposite. Kids think that they are not going to be harmed behind the wheel- they are invincible in their minds, so when it comes to impressing their passengers they will do things that otherwise they would never do with another adult in the car. It is so scary to think about how much their actions and choices can change in just a short little moment depending on who they are with.

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