With high schools across St. Louis back in session, this is a good time to examine again the leading cause injury and death to teens ages 16 to 19: motor vehicle crashes. A new study of the dangers to teenagers finds that brain development plays a critical role in the frequency of violent motor vehicle collisions.

Researchers say the slow development of what is called working memory is associated with the traffic crashes, injuries and fatalities among teens. They add that cognitive development screening could help identify those teenagers at high risk of causing crashes.

Working memory develops from adolescence into the 20s. It’s a frontal lobe process associated with “complex, moment-to-moment tasks” that are essential to safe driving.

Researchers analyzed data from 118 youths who were part of a detailed study that began when they were 10-to-12-year-olds and ended when they were 18-to-20-year-olds. The survey included measurements of working memory development as well as traits and behaviors associated with risk-taking.

“We found that teens who had slower development in working memory were more likely to report being in a crash,” said the lead author of the paper published in JAMA Network Open.

Driving safely involves scanning and monitoring traffic and the environment, and the management of “multiple subtasks (e.g., adjusting speed, steering, in-vehicle controls) and distractors (e.g., peer passengers and cell phones),” the researches stated in their paper.

Traffic crash data has for years shown that teenage drivers consistently have higher rates of accidents, injuries and deaths. Hopefully, more research and intervention techniques will be developed to keep not only our youngest drivers safe, but those who share their vehicles and the roads with them.