Driving with Distractions

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

The problem is that the skills affected by ADHD are the ones you most need for driving.

Twenty-year-old Michael is running late. The athletic, blonde college student has a summer job as an instructor at a Houston, Texas swim club. He bolts down the hardwood stairs of his parents' handsome colonial house, wolfs down his eggs and toast, and swipes his car keys off the hall table. Then, sheepishly, he hands the keys over to Mom.

Michael can't drive the new Nissan Pathfinder he bought and paid for himself from his last summer job. In fact, he can't drive any car for a year. Michael was convicted of driving drunk on his college campus in May, an infraction that cost him his license, and temporarily his place on the varsity swim team. Now he needs his mother to drive him to work.

"It's not what you think," Michael explains. "I was sitting in my dorm, I'd had a few beers, and a female friend calls. She's at a party, really uncomfortable about the scene, and asks me to come get her. So off I go. I don't think I was drunk, but I got distracted by my passengers and ran a red light. The police smelled alcohol on my breath."

It's a far too typical tale for young drivers these days, but even more typical for people like Michael. Diagnosed since age six with attention deficit disorder, Michael already has been cited for nearly a dozen moving violations ranging from drunk driving to speeding to running red lights.

"He's such a nice kid," says his mother Patty. "He never gets in any other kind of trouble. He's a top athlete, a great student, a hard worker, and a fine human being. But when it comes to driving, he's got a big problem."

"The problem is that the skills affected by ADHD are the ones you most need for driving," says psychologist Nadine Lambert, Ph.D. of the University of California at Berkeley. "People with ADHD have serious difficulties planning ahead, following through, and staying on task — things you need to do to drive safely."

Discouraging data

Dr. Lambert and her colleagues have found careless driving far more prevalent in people with ADHD than others. Recently, they completed a study comparing driving records of 113 young men with severe ADHD to 335 peers without the disorder.

"By every measure, the ADHD drivers had more moving and non-moving violations than the non-ADHD group," Lambert says. In fact, the ADHD group was nearly twice as likely to have had their licenses suspended.

The ADDers were significantly more likely to be convicted for speeding, not obeying signs and signals, following too closely, improper passing, and not following road markings. In every other category measured — including reckless driving, drunk driving, and lane placement — the ADHD drivers were at least somewhat more likely to have committed infractions.

Fortunately, there were few crashes in the study, and the ADHD's had only a slightly higher percentage of involvement than their peers. But two crashes resulted in fatalities, and both involved ADHD drivers.

ADHD drivers even seem to have more difficulty coping with driving problems too. ("Some don't plan their lives well," Lambert surmises.) Those in the study were far more likely to have committed violations involving equipment, licensing, failure to appear in court, failure to pay fines, and ignoring police authorities.

"There were problems with follow through," Lambert says. "They didn't get their insurance certificates, they forgot to appear in court, they drove around with broken tail lights. They also had multiple convictions for the same violation; most drivers without ADHD have very few repeat occurrences.

Does medication make a difference? If anything, the group on medication fared worse. But researchers aren't ready to conclude that stimulant medication is of no help; the statistic may simply reflect the fact that ADHD among drivers who take medication is more severe.

Control at the controls

Lambert and other experts say these statistics make it clear that people with ADHD should take special care when driving, particularly by limiting distractions. Some of the safeguards they recommended:

  • Acknowledge that you have a disorder that may have an impact on your driving skills. When race car driver Sterling Morse was once asked what it took to be successful, he said: "Concentration." Like all drivers, people with ADHD need to make sure they are focused on the task. Unlike other drivers, they may need extra help to do so.
  • No cellular phone use while driving. ADHD drivers with cell phones should keep the phone off to stop incoming calls, restrict phone use to emergencies, and at the very least should pull over whenever making a call. Never take notes while driving.
  • Limit music sources and choices. Some ADHD drivers find music helps them concentrate. Others find it distracting. Whatever the case, choose a music source that limits attention-grabbing fumbling. Use only pre-set radio stations, and if using a tape or CD player, carry only one CD or tape per trip to eliminate the temptation to search through a stack of them while driving.
  • Drive without passengers, or choose passengers carefully. Passengers can be extremely distracting, particularly when ADHD teens drive with friends or ADHD parents drive with young children. Have your passengers ride in the back seat, if possible, to minimize distracting interactions.
  • Plan trips ahead, and leave yourself plenty of time. Organizing your trip beforehand allows you to focus on the task of driving, rather than on directions. In addition, if you don't get lost, you're less likely to be in a rush which can lead to speeding or running red lights. If you must consult a map, pull over to read. Avoid impulsively deciding to drive somewhere without organizing where you are headed and how you are going to get there.

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