Speed, risk-taking to blame in many accidents involving young drivers

The driving habits of teens are in the spotlight after an underage driver lost control of a car near Joliette, north of Montreal, and crashed into a tree early Monday, killing two of his passengers and critically injuring two others.

Teenage brains are still developing, making them more willing to take risks, expert says

Friends placed a teddy bear in the tree where a car driven by a 15-year-old went off the road near Joliette, Que., killing two passengers and critically injuring two others. The driver sustained minor injuries. (CBC)

Young drivers are more willing to take risks behind the wheel than adults, which experts say could explain why youth are disproportionately involved in serious accidents in Quebec.

Speed is involved in most road accidents involving drivers between the ages of 16 and 24, said Mario Vaillancourt, a spokesperson for the Société de l'assurance automobile du Québec (SAAQ).

"Between 2012 and 2016, speed was involved in 58 percent of accidents with fatalities involving young drivers," Vaillancourt said.

"It's one of the main factors."

The habits of young drivers are in the spotlight after a 15-year-old youth lost control of a car near Joliette, north of Montreal, and crashed into a tree early Monday.

Two passengers, aged 14 and 17, were killed in the crash. 

A 13-year-old and a 16-year-old are in critical condition in hospital, while the driver of the car sustained minor injuries.​

Eloise Cossette of the Sûreté du Québec said excessive speed was a factor.

Police are conducting a mechanical inspection on the vehicle and have not confirmed how fast it was going before it crashed, she said.

Alain Lemay, left, told his 13-year-old son Isaac, right, that he had to stay home and couldn't go out with his friends - a decision that might have saved the teen's life. (CBC)

Young drivers over-represented in accidents

The number of young drivers who died in road accidents has gone down every year since 2011.

Last year, 48 young drivers were killed, compared to 55 in 2015.

Despite that decrease, young drivers are still over-represented in serious road accidents in Quebec.

Drivers between the ages of 16 and 24 made up nine percent of all driver's licence holders in 2015.

However, they were involved in 21 percent of road accidents that resulted in injuries or death, according to SAAQ statistics.

On average, 101 young drivers were involved in road accidents causing deaths every year between 2011 and 2015.​

"One dead is always one too many," said Vaillancourt.

Brain still developing in teens

The brain's prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making and risk-taking, continues to develop into early adulthood, said Cecilia Flores, a McGill psychiatry professor who studies teenage brains.

That's why teenagers may make more impulsive choices than adults.
Cecilia Flores of McGill University says teenagers may make more impulsive choices than adults because their brains are still developing. (McGill University)

"For the brain to function [at] an adult level, all the connections have to be formed," she said.

Vaillancourt said the SAAQ has launched awareness campaigns targeting young drivers, including one warning them against the risks involved with texting and driving.

He said passengers should speak up when they see a driver acting dangerously behind the wheel.

Parents should also talk to their children about safe practices and set a good example.

"As parents, we have to show the good behaviours," he said.

'A tragedy'

Staff at École de La Rive, the high school most of the teens involved in the Joliette accident attended, met today to discuss how to support the other students coming back to class on Wednesday.

Monday was a holiday and Tuesday was a pedagogical day at the school.

"It's a tragedy that touches everyone here," said Diane Fortin, a spokesperson for the Commission scolaire des Samares in Quebec's Lanaudière region.

Fortin said an official from the Sûreté du Québec is also going to speak to students about driving safety.

"Time is what will heal all this, but we will devote time to the students," Fortin said.​

Social workers will also be at the Maison des Jeunes de Lavaltrie, 15 kilometres south of Joliette, on Tuesday evening to offer their support to young people who drop by the youth centre.

With files from Simon Nakonechny