Can You Train the Teen Brain to Drive?

June 27, 2013
With Dr. Isler anticipating his first Philly cheesesteak.

CIRP@CHOP recently welcomed Robert Isler, PhD, an associate professor of Psychology at The University of Waikato in New Zealand, for an extended visit. He has spent over the past two decades researching physiological psychology and human performance, road safety, and driver training and education to help prevent teen driver crashes. He also created eDrive, a very innovative and empirically-based on-line program that uses an engaging gaming platform (driving from the south of the South Island to the north of the North Island of New Zealand) to take teens through higher order driver skill training (i.e., visual search, situation awareness, hazard perception, insight training, and risk management).

In fall 2012 I was fortunate to meet Robert at the Australasian Road Safety conference in Wellington and was so impressed with his work that I made the trip to Hamilton to meet with him. Since our research interests are similar, we have kept in touch to share our latest findings and to seek input from each other on new areas of interest. One aspect of our research that we share is how to help teens develop the skills they need to become safe, competent drivers. Teens are “works in progress” both in terms of gaining experience and developing -- in particular, the frontal lobe of their brains are not fully developed until age 25 -- and we need to help them.

We’re working on ways to improve frontal lobe executive functions, such as self-regulation, impulse control, and insight, so that teens can achieve insight about driving risks and improve their driving skills. Robert’s research using eDrive has shown such promising results that the New Zealand government, the AA (automobile club of New Zealand), and others partially funded it. Now, all learner teen drivers in New Zealand have access to high quality online training for free. We are all optimistic that this training will make them more skilled drivers. Future research will look at the effects of the training on crash rates. 

Now, that’s what I call research in action!