Oct 1 2006

More Dangerous Than Anyone Thought

Driving data latest attack on ‘teen brains’

Earlier this year, I asked my undergraduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to evaluate a barrage of news stories declaring that “teen drivers are more dangerous than anyone thought” (Paula Zahn Now, 1/18/06) in response to an American Automobile Association study warning that crashes involving 15- to 17-year-old drivers killed 31,000 people over the last decade.

Within minutes, the students, ages 19-21, formulated three obvious questions reporters should have asked about the study: (1) Did the teen drivers “involved in” the crashes in the AAA study cause the crashes? (2) Why are teen drivers singled out, when older drivers also kill others, including teens? and (3) Shouldn’t reporters treat claims by political lobbies such as AAA skeptically or balance them against other opinions?

Yet a review of news coverage of the AAA study showed virtually no reporters inclined to pursue such elementary questions. The AAA media campaign was well-designed for uncritical consumption by a press corps whose portrayal of youth is high in hype and negative stereotype. It served to corroborate existing assumptions—“You already know teens and cars can be a very dangerous combination,” reported CNN (1/18/06)—but offered reporters a “new” angle by underscoring the hazard teen drivers pose for those other than themselves; in the words of CNN’s Jack Cafferty (1/18/06), “They kill other people, lots of them.”

Consumed with the AAA’s grim message that “Teen Drivers Kill Passengers, Pedestrians” (Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, 1/19/06), no major reports noted that teens were cited as being at fault in only 28 percent of the crashes in the group’s study; for the vast majority, adult drivers victimized teens or the driver at fault was not stated. Data from the National Center for Statistics and Analysis’ Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) (1994-2004) show adults at every age up to 40 were cited as causing more multiple-vehicle crashes than drivers aged 16 and 17. Accounts of the AAA study, then, effectively blamed teens for untold thousands of crashes in which they were killed by adults.

With statistical context or critical examination of the AAA’s soundbites nowhere on the agenda, most accounts focused either on how young people could be rendered less lethal (“Grim statistics argue for Limits on Teen Drivers,” Columbus Dispatch, 1/20/06; “AAA Study Spurs Groups to Get Tough on Teens,” Wichita Eagle, 1/19/06) or on what makes teenagers so uniquely dangerous to begin with.

On the latter point, reporters participated in a recurring trend of media looks “inside the teen brain” that, like Time’s “What Makes Teens Tick” (5/10/04), present without challenge the idea of a biological underpinning for an array of behaviors deemed adolescent, from “dumb decisions” to “the impassioned pursuit of sex, drugs and rock and roll.”

Sometimes stories on teens’ purported irrationality contain their own faulty logic. The New York Times (1/08/06), in a story accusing teen brains of fomenting “all kinds of impulsive behavior, including dangerous skateboard stunts, binge drinking and sex without contraceptives,” approvingly quoted psychologist Lewis Lipsitt: “More young people die of behavioral misadventures than of all diseases combined.”

But such a statistic doesn’t prove teens are dangerous, only that they’re safer than adults from cancer and heart disease. The real measure of risk (as my students also quickly pointed out) is whether teens are more likely to suffer “behavioral misadventures” than older age groups are. In fact, 15- to 19-year-olds (the age brackets in the article) have lower accident death rates (33.0 per 100,000 population) than Americans as a whole (37.6)—and considerably lower than Americans ages 40-44 (40.4) or 45-49 (40.7) (Centers for Disease Control, “WISQARS Injury Mortality Reports, 1999-2003”). Many of the article’s commentators disparaging teens as risk-takers belonged to age groups with higher risks of “behavioral misadventure” than teens.

Prominent in teen brain articles is the National Institute of Mental Health’s Jay Giedd, who contends that brain development research shows adolescence to be “a dangerous time”—because, as the Washington Post explains (2/1/05), “the region of the brain that inhibits risky behavior is not fully formed until age 25, a finding with implications for a host of policies, including the nation’s driving laws.”

Readers may encounter caveats—Washington Post readers are told that “critics . . . and Giedd himself emphasize that there is no proven correlation between brain changes [his research maps] and behavior”; but these are apt to be lost amid assertions one might call colorful, like “even the most thuggish-looking teens have brains that are as vulnerable as an infant’s” (Boston Globe, 11/10/05), and those one might call abusive: “Everyone knows teens are impulsive, take bad risks and do stupid things. Now scientists understand why” (Rocky Mountain News, 10/20/05).

The large number of social and medical scientists skeptical that teens are inherently reckless risk-takers (led by Northwestern University psychiatrist Daniel Offer, a leading researcher on adolescents) rarely appear in such reports. Nor, for that matter, do any advocates who might point out the ominous undertones of arguments suggesting that “different brains” make young adults deserving of fewer rights. (“The car rental agencies have it right when they don’t rent to people under 25,” the New York Times—1/8/06—quoted one source without comment.)

As for young people themselves, when they speak in such reports, it’s to say something like, “We were all being stupid” (CNN, 1/18/06), but not to suggest that misdirected attention does nothing to help youth with the problems they actually face, problems that have more to do with unglamorous things like racism and poverty than with joyriding.