The Age of the Brain

The brain

How the brain reacts to distraction at different stages of life.

Statistics on crashes and scientific studies of the brain present conflicting data on whether younger or older drivers are more affected by distracted driving.

The worst offenders of distracted driving, according to the NHTSA, are also youngest and the least experienced: men and women under 20. The under-20 age group had the highest proportion of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes (16 percent), followed by drivers 20 to 29 years old (12 percent).

But when it comes to cognition, older drivers are naturally more distractible. “Internal thoughts may be particularly hard for older adults to filter, starting in middle age but increasingly after age 65. We have some evidence that auditory stimuli are hard for them, too, to tune out during visual tasks,” reports neuroscientist Dr. Cheryl Grady of the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto.

“I would advise any driver, but particularly an older one, to avoid distraction as much as possible–not using the cell phone, programming GPS systems, fiddling with the radio and CD player, and so on,” she says.

But experience may already be helping older drivers understand that, since the younger, less experienced drivers have the highest crash rates. Teens and young adults are more likely to carry their mobile devices into the car, using MP3 players and texting – which means the temptation for distraction could be more prevalent.

The solution? Stay safe at any age and keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.


Rachel Adelson writes about technology and the science of behavior from her office near Toronto. Within an hour of finishing this story, she found herself driving behind someone putting on mascara at the wheel.

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