ADHD and Teen Driving
How ADHD can impede safe driving
Driving a car is an essential form of transportation in the United States, yet it’s easily the most dangerous thing we do every day. Driving is especially dangerous for teenagers – motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death among this group, according to the Institute for Highway Safety. When you add ADHD to the mix, the statistics become even more depressing. Drivers with ADHD get into accidents 2-3 times more frequently than drivers without it. All new drivers are inexperienced, but those with ADHD face even greater challenges to driving safely.
How does ADHD affect driving skills?
ADHD isn’t just about being distracted. It affects the way the brain does everyday things that we take for granted, such as multitasking, keeping track of time, and thinking ahead. These are part of a set of mental processes collectively known as executive function. In fact, ADHD is so closely tied to executive function that experts such as Russell Barkley, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and research professor of psychiatry at the State University of New York Upstate Medical School in Syracuse, New York, believe that the condition should be renamed Executive Function Deficit Disorder.
The act of driving a car is complex; the driver must constantly evaluate what’s going on around him or her, respond by taking action, and re-evaluate every situation. Driving safely relies on most, if not all, of our executive functions. It’s no surprise that ADHD can have the following effects on driving:
Distractability, which means it’s harder for the brain of a person with ADHD to decide which information it takes in is important, and which information it should ignore. This makes it harder to “tune out” distractions such a ringing cell phone, a scenic view or a catchy billboard, taking the driver’s focus away from the road, pedestrians or traffic signals. Adding to the distractions from the road are driving cars equipped with complicated digital interfaces to control the stereo, navigation, cell phone, etc.
Impulsivity, which means doing something based on an urge without stopping to think, is one of the most common characteristics of ADHD. Examples of impulsive driving include speeding and abrupt lane changing (weaving).
Memory impairment can often be present in people with ADHD, and could make remembering the rules of the road or complicated directions difficult.
Maturity level is often affected by ADHD. A teenager may overestimate his or her driving skills; this overconfidence could lead to an accident in a driving situation where experience and judgment are necessary.
Rapid mood changes are not uncommon in people with ADHD. Driving in the chaos of heavy traffic can be extremely frustrating, so the ability to regulate one’s mood while driving is a crucial skill to avoiding emotional, aggressive driving, or “road rage.”
What can be done to reduce the impact of ADHD on young drivers?
Encouraging safe driving habits should be a goal of the parents of any teenager learning to drive. Teens with ADHD face a unique set of driving challenges that parents can address in a variety of ways:
Increasing the amount of driver training has been a strategy supported by many scientific studies about ADHD and teen driving. Driving rehabilitation specialists are specially trained occupational therapists that deal with a person’s physical, visual, and mental ability to drive. They can conduct a thorough evaluation of your child to find out which areas of driving he needs help with, and develop a training program tailored to your child. Check your area for specialized driver training programs for individuals with special needs.
Readjusting medications may be necessary. Several important studies show that stimulant medications significantly improve driving performance of individuals with ADHD. But if your child takes medication for ADHD in the morning, its effect may have worn off by the end of the day, when your child is likely to be driving (home from school, or to soccer practice, for example). Ask the pediatrician or psychiatrist whether the timing of their medication should be adjusted, or if a long-acting medication may be worth exploring. Establish a “Never drive unless you’ve taken your medication” rule with your child.
Have ongoing discussions with your child about expectations of driver safety. Emphasize the seriousness of safe driving; frame the discussion around driving as a privilege, not a right. Some parents draft a ‘Driving Contract’ with their child, which spells out specific rules (each trip must be logged, no cell phone use allowed, no driving between certain hours, etc.) and clarifies the consequences of violating the rules.
Consider delaying driving privileges. All 50 states now have graduated licensing systems for new drivers, where driving restrictions are gradually reduced as the driver gains more experience. These restrictions usually include limiting nighttime driving and the number of passengers. Some parents choose to extend them if they feel that their child is not ready to drive safely without restrictions. In some cases, a child simply may not be ready to even begin driver training, and may benefit from waiting a couple of years before pursuing a driver’s license.
Monitor your child’s driving. Dr. Barkley recommends starting off by strict monitoring of your child’s driving, and relaxing the monitoring as your child gains experience and demonstrates an ongoing record of safe driving. Monitoring could be as basic as having your child use a logbook every time they drive (requiring your sign-off on each trip), or as advanced as installing an onboard monitoring system. Devices like the tiwi™ Drive Aware let you track your child’s speed and location in real time, and can even disable a cell phone while the car is in motion.
Consider a car with a manual transmission. Many drivers with ADHD find that they feel less distracted by driving a car with manual (stick shift) rather than automatic transmission. The additional actions of shifting and operating the clutch help keep the hands, feet, and mind focused on the act of driving. In fact, a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) confirmed that drivers with ADHD performed better on a car simulator when driving a stick shift.
Teenagers CAN become safe drivers
We hear statistics about car accident deaths everywhere; they can be especially overwhelming and scary to a parent of a new driver. Teen driving is inherently risky whether ADHD is involved or not. Besides being inexperienced drivers, teenagers’ brains have not yet fully matured to be able to execute the good judgment required of safe and attentive driving, which is why there is no substitute for rigorous driver training and experience.
This does not mean that there isn’t hope – many teenagers with ADHD grow up to become very skilled, safe drivers. Developing individualized coping skills to manage ADHD is fundamental part of being successful in any area of a person’s life, whether at school, at home, or behind the wheel. The strategies above are suggestions for things you can do as a parent to encourage your teen to develop into a safe driver. Since ADHD affects everyone differently, not every strategy may apply, which further emphasizes your need to maintain an ongoing discussion with your child as a partner, to come up with solutions together.
Lastly, set a good example – be diligent about your own safe driving habits. Safe driving is an issue that affects everyone!