09/23/2011 03:21 pm ET Updated Nov 23, 2011

What Parents Should Know About Teenage Driving and Risky Behavior

My oldest child wants to get behind the wheel of an automobile and I'm worried. As she bugs us for permission to take the test for a learner's permit, I can't help but think of a driving quiz my wife was once given -- by a police officer, on the side of the road.

The quiz took place when my wife was around twenty years old (we weren't married yet). She was cruising around town when she drove through a yellow light. A police car pulled her over. When the officer approached her window he didn't ask for the license and registration. Instead he asked if my wife knew what the colors on the traffic light meant.

"What does a green light mean?" he asked.

"Go," she said.

"What does a red light mean?" he asked.


"So what does a yellow light mean?"

"My mother told me I should hit the gas and say, 'Oops!'"

My wife drove away with a warning.

Researchers at Temple University used a similar test to explore the biology behind peer pressure and adolescent risk taking. They set up a simulated driving test that rewarded drivers who traveled from point A to point B within a certain amount of time. To go from point A to point B drivers needed to go through a number of intersections controlled by traffic lights. People who stopped at yellow lights took longer to complete the course and earned a smaller reward. People who drove through the yellow lights could complete the course faster and earn a bigger reward, but running a yellow light also carried the risk of a crash and a significant delay.

The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging to measure the brain activity of teens and young adults as they completed the test. When the researchers compared the teenagers' performance to the young adults' performance everyone scored the same. But participants brought friends. When the drivers went through the test knowing that friends were watching only the teenagers' brain activity was different. Teenagers who knew that friends were watching took more risks -- and they crashed.

Most people who have written about this study stop here. On the surface the study supports common sense: When teenagers drive by themselves they make the same decisions that older drivers make. This logic stands behind graduated driver's license laws. If you make teens wait before driving with teens in the car then they will be less likely to take dangerous risks.

So why are we reading in the news that graduated license laws aren't saving lives?

One reason might be found in a piece of data that wasn't reported by the researchers at Temple University: How many teens always stopped for the yellow lights, and why?

There is a group of researchers who probe what is known as "problem behavior theory." These scientists try to look at all the factors that impact adolescent behavior, including the parent's attitude toward risky behaviors. They've conducted long-term studies that show that teenagers who avoid dangerous risks often have strong relationships with parents who behave in safe and healthy ways. The studies also show that teenagers who engage in risky and problem behaviors -- like smoking, substance abuse, violence, and dangerous driving -- often have strong relationships with parents who engage in the same behaviors.

Does this mean that my wife could blame her mother for when she ran that red light? Remember -- we're talking about my mother-in-law. In my book she can do no wrong.

I can say that parental attitudes had an impact on my driving history. When I was little I was my father's co-pilot. No matter where he went I wanted to ride shotgun. And my father usually followed all of the laws of the road.

But there is one drive that stands out. It took place on a summer afternoon sometime around 1975. I had tagged along on my older brothers' Boy Scout hike. On the drive home the boys talked my father into racing the other troop master. I'll always remember the wind blowing everyone's hair as we drove faster and faster, everyone unbuckled and cheering in that big back seat, as my father, his elbow casually stuck out the window, edged past the other troop master's car as we barreled down the highway home.

A few years after that race I stood in my parent's living room needing to explain how their car's axle had broken in a nearby parking lot. I couldn't figure out a viable excuse to cover my recklessness. If I had only known about problem behavior theory then I could have looked my father in the eye and said, "It was your fault."

I try to think about my kids' perspective of my behavior when I drive. I'm terrified by the thought that they would take some of the same risks I took as a teen behind the wheel. So when I'm tempted to speed around a corner or do something that might be considered "fun" I try to stop myself. When I do something stupid or unsafe, I try to admit that I made a mistake. And when I accidentally drive through a yellow light, I blame my mother-in-law.