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Police block the road where a York Regional Police officer died after being struck be a vehicle on Tuesday, June 28, 2011.Aaron Vincent Elkaim/ The Canadian Press

In the grainy predawn blackness of last Tuesday, Constable Garrett Styles was alone on Highway 48. The sun would be up in less than an hour, but he wouldn't live to see it. Instead, he would die in a crime that highlights the psychology of a seldom-discussed tradition: the teenage joyride.

"For a teenager, the car represents mobility and freedom," says Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do. "And joyriding breaks all the rules. That's the very heart of its appeal. The question is, which kids are likely to give in to that?"

The Highway 48 incident provides insight. Constable Styles, a seven-year veteran of the York Regional Police force, stopped a 15-year-old boy who had taken his parents' Dodge minivan. When the officer reached in to remove the keys, the boy accelerated, dragging Constable Styles with him, police said. Three hundred metres down the road, the van careened into a field and rolled, pinning the constable beneath it.

Although the case is still under investigation, it appears that the boy, who lives in Keswick, Ont., was "known to police" and made a habit of taking his parents' vehicle for late-night rides. Several friends were with the boy when Constable Styles clocked him doing 145 kilometres an hour in an 80 zone, police said.

The boy, who cannot be named under the terms of the federal Youth Criminal Justice Act, now faces murder charges, and is reportedly paralyzed due to spinal injuries suffered in the crash. Experts say his case typifies the social and psychological dynamics of joyriding.

"There is a small, undesirable subset of the population that exhibits very poor decision-making," says Jeff Muttart, a U.S.-based academic who studies the mechanics and psychology of driving. "That's what you're looking at with a case like this one."

Mr. Muttart spent the past week at a California traffic conference where teenage driving behaviour was the subject of numerous studies. (Among them: Inhibitory Control and Reward Predict Risky Driving in Young Novice Drivers.) Mr. Muttart, a former police officer who has spent years analyzing driver behaviour, says teenage joyriders are among the riskiest drivers in the world.

"These are risk-takers who have no conditioned responses," he says. "It's the worst of all worlds."

Mr. Muttart's research into accidents involving licensed drivers has taught him that those in the 16-to-17 age bracket are 12 times more likely to die in a crash than any other age group. The reasons include both experience and mental development.

"Young adults do not have fully formed brain connections," Mr. Muttart says. "Experienced drivers begin to recognize patterns that young drivers never discern."

Teenage joyriding is a little-documented phenomenon, since many cases go unreported. "The only cases we really know about are the ones where they get stopped," says Sergeant Tim Burrows of Toronto police. "Most parents don't report their own kids for taking the car."

During his 21 years as a traffic officer, Sgt. Burrows made about half a dozen joyriding busts. All were boys. The youngest was 12.

In Saskatoon, Inspector Dave Haye said joyriding is seen as an initiation rite among certain socio-economic groups. "Our experience is that it could be anyone aged from 12 or 13 to 18, 19 or 20," he said. "Usually male but we do have young girls involved, the gender line gets blurred. Usually there's very little parental supervision in the house."

Tim Falconer, an author who has explored the worlds of driving and child psychology, says joyriding has an irresistible allure for some teenagers. "A car represents freedom, in both the metaphorical and literal sense," he says. "It means that you can drive away from your home, your school, your parents and your problems. The car transports us, both literally and figuratively. It grants us power."

Mr. Muttart says the boy charged in the incident that killed Constable Styles appears to fit a pattern that has been studied many times - risk-taking, underachievement and alignment with a dubious crowd. (News reports this week characterized one of the boys' companions in the car as "a lot of trouble.")

He says joyriding teenagers often belong to peer groups that reinforce negative behaviour. "At this age, peer acceptance means everything," he says. "So it's a question of what's accepted, and what isn't. A lot of studies have examined which socio-economic groups are more likely to engage in risk-taking behaviour. If you're a member of the National Honour Society, it's pretty unlikely that your friends will accept joyriding."

Although cases like the one that killed Constable Styles generate enormous attention, police say teenage joyriding is actually in decline, as is car theft in general. Elizabeth Popowich, manager of public information for Regina Police Service, said car theft fell 70 per cent between 2001 and 2010. And only a small percentage of thefts involved joyriders.

"We've interviewed young people who were involved in stealing vehicles, perhaps to impress their friends or to take them for a ride," Ms. Popowich says. "I would say that was more a problem in the past than now, but it still exists."

With reports from Timothy Appleby and Stephanie Chambers

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