A particular type of age-related brain development – not just immaturity and inexperience – may be why so many teenage drivers get into motor vehicle crashes, according to a new Philadelphia-based study.

The researchers say their findings suggest that screening teen drivers’ cognitive development may be a new strategy for identifying high-risk young motorists and targeting interventions to prevent motor vehicle crashes — the top cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.

The study, led by researchers with the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, focused on working memory, a brain process that is associated with the kind of complex, moment-to-moment multitasking involved in endeavors like driving. It develops through adolescence into the 20s.

“We found that teens who had slower development in working memory were more likely to report being in a crash,” said lead author Elizabeth A. Walshe, a postdoctoral fellow with Annenberg and CHOP’s Center for Inquiry Research and Prevention.

The findings, published Friday in JAMA Network Open, are part of a long-range study of nearly 300 young Philadelphians from 2005 when they were 10- to 12-year-olds to 2014 when they were 18 to 20. The survey measured working memory development, as well as other risk-related behavior, and the oldest group of study participants also did a follow-up survey on driving experiences.

Of those 84 young people in the last group who were drivers, nearly 30% reported being in a crash. All those young drivers who had been in crashes also had slower-than-average working memory development, Walshe said. Interestingly, four young drivers in the study group reported having an ADHD diagnosis, but none were among the teens who had car crashes.

These new findings about working memory and young drivers could have implications for future policy that affects driver safety. Next, the researchers say they would like to see if their findings hold up in a larger group of young people.

“If our findings hold up in larger samples with diverse youth, we will need to start assessing cognitive abilities, such as working memory to see if some adolescents are less ready for independent driving,” said Daniel Romer, Annenberg’s research director and a senior fellow at CHOP injury prevention center.

“There is considerable variation in working memory development during the teen years,” said Romer, “and some teens may not be ready to drive on their own without additional assistance.”

Working memory development can be measured through computerized assessment or tests. The results could help develop different types of driver education depending on an individual’s needs, or increase driving restrictions based on the driver’s development.

“Ideally, we’d be able to offer interventions like driver training or technologies like in-vehicle alert systems to assist new drivers who need it,” said Walshe.

The research-directed initiatives could potentially lessen the toll of the greatest cause of death for young people, Walshe said.

“This research points to the fact that crashes are predictable and preventable,” said Flaura K, Winston, a physician and founder of CHOP’s injury research and prevention center.