The need for speed

The terrible deaths of five teenagers in an horrific car crash in Melbourne’s north continues to generate much media interest, with the latest from the today’s AGE asking questions about whether interventions around young people men need to be more active and more direct.  It’s probably a little off my usual k-12 learning agenda to consider here, but issues of learning and young people are implicit in the way the debate has unfolded.

It sounds a bit ‘Brave New World’ ish  but those desperate to try to stop adolescent males getting drunk and killing themselves and others in cars entered the brain development debate in today’s article. Nothing that’s been tried seems to have stopped the carnage, from impounding cars, to dragging schoolkids through casualty units to the long running TAC ads that have a shock focus.  It seems that most people who have their cars impounded don’t re-offend, but a small group do, and that small group might be targeted directly as it seems poor concentration, hyperactivity, criminal behaviour, poor school attendance and achievement might all be indicators of likely problems with assessment of risk in driving.  And, the article reports, brain development.

In a world of unlimited resources, a brain scan might work. Advances in neuroscience have shown that the prefrontal cortex, the section of the brain that assesses risk by weighing short-term thrills against long-term consequences, takes longer to develop. Some teens won’t reach brain maturity until their mid 20s – and they might be inclined to risky behaviour given the right circumstances.
One of the most vocal proponents of looking to the brain for answers is John Reid from Monash University’s School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine. Last year on ABC radio, he suggested using brain imaging technology to identify the most dangerous drivers.
”It wouldn’t be feasible to scan the brains of all young driving-licence applicants, so we need some sort of inexpensive, easy to administer screen that would filter out those candidates who are more likely to be at risk.”
That ”easy to administer screen” might prove elusive, even without canvassing all the likely objections to taking this organic approach to criminality.
Of course, civil libertarians might have something to say, while others could see in this move a diluting of notions of individual responsibility. ”My brain made me do it,” lacks a certain moral appeal as a defence.
MELBOURNE University professor of psychology Nick Allen has been looking at how various mental health problems, including extreme risk-taking, seem to peak in late adolescence or early adulthood before dramatically dropping off. He says brain development is certainly a factor, but warns: ”When we’re talking about these people who are lagging behind for biological reasons, it’s important from a public policy rationale to note that we can’t identify these people yet with any precision. And the other factor that’s most crucial is of course the social environment; dangerous driving is still going to be attractive because in some circles it’s still seen as prestigious.”

The study of the developing brain is still in its infancy, but scientists have made huge advancements in the last few years and there is much to learn here still. We’ve been told for a long time now that adolescent males are more likely risk-takers and less mature in their awareness and thinking than girls of a similar age. Is there an argument for screening some young men? Or for raising the licence age for young men? And would that be politically palatable?

One thing I know is that I’ve never been a fan of the shock and awe approach of the TAC in their long-standing ‘scare them stupid’ approach to road safety in Victoria. It’s not a learning approach we’d try in a classroom and it’s not one I see working with young men out on the streets.  Scanning the brains of young licence applicants for immaturity sounds like the future world of Gattaca has arrived already and, along with new technologies like DNA testing and disease profiling raises serious ethical questions.  But anyone who saw pictures of the tangled wreck of that car on the TV news last week might be inclined to seriously consider new ways.



  1. Not sure if I should comment on my own post! But, this week the Victorian Government announced the possibility of a new series of hard-hitting TAC style advertisements designed to reduce the amount of violence, particularly knife-related, on Melbourne streets.

    My reservations to this approach, as stated above, still stand.

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