Driving with Distractions

Take these steps to ensure safety behind the wheel for your young driver.

Driving, Part 2

Drivers Special Ed

Dr. Lambert says her study points to the need for significant intervention at the driver training stage. But while modifications clearly are necessary, drivers education programs traditionally make no distinction between children with and without ADHD.

"The entire burden on teaching ADHD kids safe driving is on the parent," says Elana Aitken, Ph.D.,a psychologist with the Hampshire Educational Collaborative in Northampton, Massachusetts, a regional organization serving the needs of children with ADHD and similar disabilities.

"The conventional wisdom is to delay driver education, and to delay licensure until the child is older and more mature," Aitken says. "But I suggest the opposite approach for kids with ADHD. While teens are younger there is a window of opportunity for parents to influence and establish safe driving habits." To keep the window open as long as possible, start early; the window slams shut at around age 18.

Aitken suggests starting as early as age 14 with a non-punitive, incentive approach to teaching driving to ADHD teens in which the parent is both ally and in charge.

  • Establish an incentive system for practice driving time. Similar to other behavior incentive systems used with ADHD kids, this one allows teens to earn practice driving time with parents for every increment of appropriate behavior at home. This program can begin before a learner's permit is issued — as early as age 14 — but only if there are private back roads to practice on in your area.
  • Allow your child to practice with you as often as possible, and for 20 minutes or more per outing. "The more experience they have driving with the parent the better off they will be in the future," says Aitken. "Get in a lot of driver training in while you still have a captive audience."
  • Use the practice driving time as an opportunity to discuss the special challenges facing ADHD drivers. "Ask the child: were you distracted? By what? Ask them to process the experience." Lambert advises. "It helps them own some of the challenges they face, and it raises their awareness."
  • Set clear limits, particularly when a learner's permit is issued. "Tell your child you won't sign for the learner's permit unless he or she agrees to abide by certain guidelines," Lambert warns. These guidelines might include driving only when a parent or driving teacher is in the car, or driving a certain number of miles with the parent before receiving permission to apply for a driver's license.

Beginner basics

Your jurisdiction may enforce "graduated license" rules in which children are granted full driving privileges in increments. If not, you can enforce restrictions yourself. Aitken says these rules should be an absolute condition of allowing your child to drive. The rules can be drawn up in a contract which parent and child can sign (Click here for our sample Driving Contract) and may include:

  • Restrict driving to necessary expeditions such as school and team events, or after school jobs.
  • No night driving for the first six months without a parent on hand.
  • Plan each trip must ahead and discussing it with the parent beforehand.
  • No passengers except parents allowed for at least the first three to six months. After that, only one passenger allowed for the first year or two. Parents should approve all passengers.
  • Zero tolerance for alcohol and drug abuse. Immediately suspend all driving privileges until your child has successfully completed a treatment program. Keep the car keys in your possession until all substance abuse issues are resolved.
  • Keep a log and check in after each trip. Teens should note where they went, how long it took, and what difficulties and distractions were encountered. Parents and teens can then discuss the log, and come up with ways to improve concentration and avoid problems. "Teens are less likely to learn from their experiences if you don't do a check-in with them," Aitken says.

Parents might also consider joining a monitoring program that provides "Is My Teenager Driving Safely?" bumper stickers with an 800 number that can be called by other drivers who may observe your teen driving unsafely. Having that bumper sticker on the car reminds your teen that even if you can't be there, someone else may be keeping tabs on their driving.

Given the considerable driving risks generally associated with youth and inexperience, stringent safety guidelines make good sense for kids whether or not they have ADHD. Parents can begin to loosen the reins after six to twelve months of driving — when and if the teen demonstrates that he or she can drive competently and safely.

Finally, give careful thought as to whether your child is mature enough to drive. High impulsivity and behaviors such as temper tantrums and consistent rule breaking may indicate that your child is not ready for this responsibility.

If parents establish themselves as a partner and ally in their teenagers' driving activities, they will have gone a long way toward helping their children become responsible and skilled drivers for life.

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TAGS: Safety for Children with ADHD, Teens and Tweens with ADHD

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