By Rehema Ellis Correspondent
NBC News
updated 2/2/2005 7:37:04 PM ET 2005-02-03T00:37:04

Learning to drive, 17-year-old Caitlyn Wright is putting her mother on edge.

"I was extremely nervous," says Holly Wright.

Holly made her daughter wait a year before getting her license. She recalls one of their first experiences together with Caitlyn behind the wheel.

"As we were merging, it was a screamer. I screamed!" says Holly.

There is good reason for Holly Wright's caution and concern. Auto accidents are the leading cause of teen deaths. And 16- to 19-year-olds are nearly twice as likely to die in car crashes as 30- to 34-year-olds.

Now, new brain research suggests an explanation. 

"The part of the brain that handles risks, isn't done developing until very late," says Paul Thompson at the UCLA Lab of Neurological Imaging.

Thompson and other researchers at The National Institutes of Health and UCLA have drawn a clearer picture of the adolescent brain.

"We thought the brain was done developing by the age of 18 or so," says Thompson. "[But] when you look at these scans you see a fantastic amount of restructuring into the early 20's."

Forty states currently have laws restricting what the youngest drivers can do and when they can do it. This new research has prompted some lawmakers to propose even more restrictions.

Last week the Virginia Senate passed a proposal by Senator Bill Mims that would prohibit drivers 18 and younger from using a cell phone from while driving.

"Teens are not capable of prioritizing whether to stay on the phone or whether to take an action that would save their lives while they're driving," says Mims.

It's that sentiment behind Holly Wright's insistence that her daughter take her time and develop her judgment skills instead of rushing into learning how to drive.

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