What is it about teens and fast cars?

Last weekend, when I heard about a group of 100 “hoons” doing speed trails down the M1 from Brisbane to the Gold Coast and reaching speeds of over 200km per hour, my heart skipped a beat.

I know I’m not the only one whose heart skips a beat when they hear or see people driving fast, losing traction (doing donuts and burnouts) or driving dangerously, but I also know that the reasons people’s hearts are skipping are very different. For me, when I think or hear of fast cars, my head goes back to all of the people I have seen who have been affected by a motor vehicle accident. I have worked for many years with those who have been injured on the roads and families who have lost a loved one in a motor vehicle accident. I’ve also seen many young people who have been convicted of culpable driving – those who have killed someone (usually their best mate or their girlfriend or even a pedestrian) because they have been driving too fast and lost control. My heart beats in despair at the danger and the ripple effect among family and community.

For many people, though, the sounds of hooning make their hearts race for a different reason.

Their hearts race with excitement. Their eyes open wide and their mouths just grin. It’s almost the same dizzy look on the face of a young person in love.

There are some people who are very attracted to driving (or riding a motor bike) at crazy speeds and putting a car through its paces. How do we help these people, often teens and young adults, enjoy their passions but also stay safe? To do this, we need to understand what drives (pardon the pun) their passion and how they are thinking.

A lot of the things we know about a teenage brain, we can see really clearly when we look at their driving behaviour. We know that the teen brain goes through various structural and chemical changes over the adolescent years that explain much of their behaviour.

We know that a brain going through the teen years undergoes changes to its pleasure centre. During adolescence, it can take more to stimulate or make a person happy and excited. It takes more to make something register as pleasurable. It’s like things need to be turned up. Music needs to be louder. Sweets need to be sweeter and dramas need to be more dramatic. For some, driving a fast car registers as pleasurable and turning up the pleasure means driving faster or driving louder. Some dangerous drivers do it for the thrill and for the adrenalin. They love living on the edge and driving fast or doing tricks in a hotted up car.  It takes them to the point where they feel absolutely thrilled – even more so if the young person might be depressed or grieving.

Another thing we know about the teen brain is that it is wired to be social. Risk taking behaviour is much higher in the presence of someone that a teen wants to impress. The other tricky thing about having a very social brain is that it is wired to prioritise social things. If we look at reaction time (the time a person takes to see something, think about it, and react to it), a teen’s reaction time is very quick. This means that a teen will get their foot to the brake quite quickly if needed. As we age, our reaction time gets slower. Elderly people have the slowest reaction time. However, if we put another teen near our fast reacting teen, their reaction times will become slower – slower even than the elderly.

The teen brain is more interested in what’s happening on the inside of the car than what’s happening on the outside of the car. That’s part of the reason there are special rules for people on their “P” plates that limit their passengers. Lives have been saved by these changes.

Rules, definitions and consequences of hooning vary from State to State in Australia.  Consequences generally involve fines and vehicle impoundments and serious and repeat offending can result in a prison sentence.  In Victoria, VicRoads run a Safe Driving Program. If someone is convicted of a hooning offence, their vehicle is impounded and they can be mandated by the Courts to do the VicRoads Safe Driving course. The course is designed to help them consider their unsafe driving, to look what motivates it and helps drivers to come up with a plan to reduce risk and drive more safely to avoid further expensive or lethal consequences.

As part of the VicRoads Safe Driving Program, drivers go through exercises to look at the purpose or function that motivates their unsafe driving. Young people (in fact not just the young) drive fast for many different reasons. Like many troubling behaviours that humans engage in, driving cars of motorbikes fast, replaces something that is missing in their life or helps them to avoid unpleasant feelings. In this way, unsafe driving is akin to many other things people do to try to make themselves feel happier or competent – substance use, alcohol, or gambling.

Some drivers take to the road to wind down or to let off steam. Nothing says “I’m really angry with you” like spinning the wheels and taking off noisily and rapidly down the street.

Some, but certainly not all, may drive dangerously because they are anti-social and angry with the world and it’s their way of demonstrating that they don’t care what anybody thinks.

Some youngsters (and perhaps some who are not so young) enjoy being a hero in their vehicles. They enjoy the adulation from friends or flocks of girls/guys. Sometimes it’s the way they bond with other members of the family. Often, if they’ve never had this feeling of being adored or belonging, it’s very attractive.

Others drive fast or ride their motorbikes fast because they feel “at one” with their vehicle. It’s almost like the vehicle is an extension of themselves – almost meditative. As the sway and glide, they feel a peace and a joy.

Some love to handcraft, build a vehicle from scratch, modify it and then take it out to see what it can do. They enjoy the mastery of a craft. Sadly, though, they can have an over-inflated sense of how much control they have on the road. There are many things that happen on our roads that are outside of our control, no matter what your driving skills.

In all, hooning and fast driving seems to meet some of the social, identity and risk-taking needs that are characteristic of the teen years –especially if young people have no other ways to meet these needs, bond and belong.

We need to ensure young people don’t put all of their interests or pleasure sources in the one basket. We need to help them with ways to express and manage their feelings without needing a motor vehicle to do so. We need to make sure that we have places where young people who love cars can exercise their passion safely. We also need to have rules that help keep all road users safe and consequences for people who break those rules.

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