It would be no surprise to brain researchers to hear that 50 percent of the people killed on the Garden State Parkway so far this year have been males under the age of 30.

In recent years, the science has become ever more clear: The prefrontal cortex - the so-called "CEO of the brain," where advanced decision-making takes place - does not fully develop until around age 25.

The prefrontal cortex allows us to control impulses, balance short-term rewards with long-term goals, and weigh consequences. In short, it acts as a brake on the kind of risky behavior that teenagers, particularly males, specialize in.

State Transportation Commissioner James Simpson, to his credit, has called for a "laser-like focus" on the problem of fatal accidents on the parkway involving young, inexperienced drivers. The New Jersey Turnpike Authority, at Simpson's urging, has now instituted a committee to study the problem of teen deaths in parkway accidents.

Motor-vehicle accidents are the No. 1 cause of death for teenagers nationwide. But a review of accident data by Press staff writer Jennifer Bogdan found that the percentage of fatal parkway accidents involving young people has not been this high since 2008. And most of the accidents occurred over weekends, between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

Bogdan also found that the percentage of deaths of young people on the parkway is higher than the statewide average. Which is a telling statistic, but also not particularly surprising. As Simpson noted, the parkway serves as a local road for a lot of young people. "It's like the main street of people who live on the Jersey Shore. These folks might be going from a friend's house or a party to get back on the parkway to get home."

The deaths of four Mainland Regional High School football players in a single-car crash on the parkway in August 2011 focused the region's attention on the problem. But Simpson's concern - he has said he was shocked that eight of the 16 parkway deaths this year were males under 30 - and Bogdan's review of the accident data should be the impetus for further action.

Better driver education? Signs targeted directly to teens? We don't know what the answer is. Or if there is one.

Plenty of people are already trying to get teenagers to understand the dangers posed by highways, driving and their own undeveloped brains.

"We need to recognize that the highway is potentially the most dangerous place on Earth, particularly for inexperienced drivers," said Wayne Shelton, of the South Jersey Transportation Safety Alliance, which conducts driver-safety programs at area high schools.

Problem is, that's a whole lot easier to recognize with a fully developed prefrontal cortex.


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