Column: Pedestrian safety and the teenage brain


The recent death of a Chamberlain High School student who was killed while crossing busy Busch Boulevard has again raised the question of how to keep safe those students whose schools are situated on busy roads.

Statistics from 2012 from Safe Kids Worldwide reveal that high school-age students are particularly at high risk on congested roads: While the death and injury rate for children has decreased since 1995, injuries and deaths for teens ages 16-19 have increased 25 percent, making adolescents the group at highest risk as pedestrians.

The Tampa Bay Times, in a recent report, found that 16 area high schools are located on thoroughfares that see on average 24,000 to 48,000 cars a day. The Times also reported that the pedestrian safety features that are present at elementary and middle schools, such as crossing guards, marked school zones and crosswalks, are not present around high schools. The rationale most cited by the officials quoted in the article: High school students are older, more mature and have an understanding of basic safety rules. In other words, they should know better. Unfortunately, not all high schoolers do, and here is why.

As psychologists, we believe that this safety issue should also be evaluated from a neuro-developmental perspective. Yes, teenagers have a higher maturity level than younger students; research indicates that a person's reasoning abilities are more or less fully developed by age 15. However, the adolescent brain is a hotbed of paradoxes. While it has a large quantity of gray matter (the neurons that form the basic building blocks of the brain), it does not have a great deal of white matter (the neurons and tissues that connect the different parts of the brain and aid in the efficient flow of information).

To quote Dr. Frances Jensen, author of The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist's Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, the adolescent brain is similar to a newly minted Ferrari: "It's primed and pumped, but it hasn't been road-tested yet."

Furthermore, the human brain matures and connects from back to front, making the frontal lobes the least mature and connected compared to other parts of the brain. Why are the frontal lobes important? The frontal lobes house our ability to plan, envision consequences and to evaluate our decisionmaking. It is this area that helps develop judgment, insight and impulse control.

Even more important for the teenager, our frontal lobes are where our ability to assess risk and danger is situated. As Jensen indicates, the adolescent brain is only 80 percent fully mature. The remaining 20 percent gap can be seen in the thin connective wiring of the frontal lobes. Developmentally, this helps explain teens' impulsivity, risky behaviors and inability to consider the consequences of their actions at times.

Indeed, many teens take unnecessary risks when crossing busy streets. Add to this impulsive decision the fact that they walk while distracted by texting, playing handheld games, listening to music or talking on the phone, and you a have recipe for disaster.

We propose that the science of neuro-development — not personal opinions, assumptions or financial constraints — should inform the decisionmaking process regarding pedestrian safety around high schools in Tampa Bay. Crossing a busy street with thousands of cars barreling by is but one example of the risky behaviors that are characteristic of the teenage years.

As such, high schools should have at least some, if not all, of the protective pedestrian safety features that are prominent in other schools. This can include 15 mph school zones that force drivers to slow down during school hours as well as lighted crosswalks that flash when teens need to cross a busy road. Past studies have shown that these measures can have a positive impact on increasing drivers' attention and mindfulness to pedestrians, thus reducing injuries and accidents.

We are horrified when younger students are involved in pedestrian accidents — these accidents prompt reviews of our safety systems to identify procedures to further protect those students. Using a neuro-developmental focus as a starting point, we recommend a thorough evaluation of safety procedures at the high school level to identify potential improvements to current systems. Because when it comes to their safety, our high schoolers may not be able to protect themselves from themselves.

Erica Clark, Psy.D.; Alina Font, Ph.D.; Karan Lamb, Psy.D; and Ashley Vigil-Otero, Psy.D., are the four other members of the Psychological Wellness Group of Tampa Bay, independent psychologists in Tampa working together to provide community outreach and promote psychological health and well-being for adults, children and families in our community. They contributed to the writing of this piece, which is exclusive to the Tampa Bay Times.