Teens with ADHD

We Have Ignition: How to Steer Your Teen Toward Safe Driving

Driving is the most dangerous activity most teens will engage in — and that’s doubly (or triply!) true for impulsive or distractible teens with ADHD. But parents can help kids develop good driving skills from the get-go. Here’s how.

A teen with ADHD discussing driving tips with his parent
Cartoon people in blue shirts in black car

Driving is the riskiest thing young people do on a regular basis. Car crashes are the leading cause of teen fatalities, accounting for a third of all deaths in kids aged 12 to 19.

Teens and young adults with ADHD are at even greater risk. A series of studies1 published in the Journal of the American Medical Association indicate that those diagnosed with the disorder are at a 45 percent greater risk for car crashes than those who do not have the condition. Drivers with ADHD are more likely to speed, drive erratically, hit the brakes at inappropriate times, and accelerate into accidents. As these teens and young adults learn to drive, they should spend extra time planning, training, and practicing.

Here are some tips for parents:

Mind your teen’s meds. Research2 (not funded by drug companies) shows that proper stimulant use cuts in half an ADHD man’s risk of dying in a car crash. As with all things related to stimulants, syncing teen medication with driving is easier said than done. At best, long-acting stimulants are good for 15 hours; short-acting forms last three to five hours. Teens are likely to be at their worst for driving before meds kick in and during the “washout” period at the end of a medication cycle. Even with long-acting stimulants, the driver may not be covered on the way to school, before the meds kick in, or during the drive home, when medication may be wearing off. Observe closely your teen’s stimulant “release arc” (the period at which the medication is most and least effective), and tailor his medication schedule so it aligns with the times he typically drives.

Start training early. Kids with ADHD tend to mature later than neurotypical peers. As teens, they need more hours of experience behind the wheel than other kids to learn and practice, and may not seem ready to start driving at age 14 or 15, when other kids are getting learner’s permits. Many teens with ADHD don’t want to start learning when their peers do, and some never get excited about driving. Even so, it’s generally better to start training as soon as he can get his learner’s permit, so he can have the maximum number of supervised hours, and to restrict independent driving until about a year after the age of legal driving in your state. This will generally give a teen three full years of supervised driving. That may sound like a long time, and it may not be necessary for all kids with ADHD, but it is optimal for most.

Take a driving course. It may seem counterintuitive, but I suggest signing up teens with ADHD for a driving course toward the end of their supervised driving period, after they’ve had lots of practice. A good course will review the basics, add knowledge, and provide an easier testing environment than dropping by the DMV and driving with a stranger. If you’re a particularly anxious parent, you may prefer your teen to do the course at the beginning of practice driving. However, since no driving course is as valuable as extensive, on-the-road practice, you’ll either have to calm your anxiety and supervise your teen’s driving, find an unflappable adult to ride with him or her, or spend thousands of dollars on a professional instructor.

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

Limit distraction. Driving requires full possession of our faculties, and we have far too many things in our cars that compete for our attention — food, iPads, and, worst of all, texting devices. Require teens to lock their phones in the trunk, and to get them out only for emergencies. Given teen attachment to these devices, this may induce a fit of crying, but all attention diverters need to be out of reach.

Track new drivers. There are several technologies (mobicopilot.com and motosafety.com) for monitoring young drivers. These easy-to-install gizmos plug a GPS, accelerometer, and cellular transmitter system into the computer diagnostic jack under the dash of your car. The unit tracks your teen’s movements around town, and sends you feedback, in maps or texts, on location, speed, and “unsafe driving events,” like revving the engine or hard braking. Because these technologies are connected to the cell phone network, their subscription fees aren’t cheap. The best package on both platforms costs about $300 for one year or $500 for two. But if you prevent a fender bender over those two years, you’ll have paid for the cost of the service.

Using technology to track kids is controversial, and separates the free-range parents from helicopter types. Before turning away from monitoring your teen, consider that many insurance companies offer discounted rates for parents who use these services because they recognize the long-term savings in damage claims filed. Moreover, if new teen drivers freak about being tracked, they should remember who is paying the costs associated with driving and answer the question of why a parent should not know the whereabouts of both car and driver.

Get a GPS. Using a GPS gets direction-impaired teens from point A to point B, and provides an accurate estimate of arrival time to reduce tardiness. However, if teens tinker with these gadgets while moving, or become preoccupied with their interesting little screens, GPS becomes one more dangerous distraction. If your teen is serious about using a GPS, I suggest getting the real thing and mounting it in whatever “heads-up” holder is permitted by your state’s law. Trying to navigate while holding an iPhone or Android device is like texting and driving. With practice, the voice-command function on GPS generally works well, but research shows that imperfections in voice technology can take focus off the road as the driver gets into an argument with a mixed-up and misunderstanding device.

[Read This Next: Get Inside Your Teen’s ADHD Mind]

Driver’s Education

I ask every driving teen who comes in for an ADHD evaluation to compare themselves to their friends on the following questions. You might want to run through this list with your teen:

  1. Do you often fail to give yourself enough drive time to get where you need to be?
  2. Have you gotten at least one speeding ticket per year since you began driving?
  3. Have you had more fender benders or curb-checks than most of your friends or siblings?
  4. Does it scare you to think about how many close calls you’ve had, when you nearly got into accidents?
  5. Do you make impulsive decisions while driving (quick turns, sudden lane changes, etc.)?
  6. Does frustration often get the best of you when you’re behind the wheel?
  7. Have you ever driven for many miles in a sort of trance, only to pop back to attention without a memory of what you saw along the way, and past your intended turn?
  8. Are you easily distracted by what’s happening along the road, or by your phone, the radio, or the heating and cooling controls, etc.?
  9. Do you seem to need help from a “copilot” to give you directions and watch out for hazards?
  10. Do others say they’re scared to ride with you?

Any of us would check a few of these items occasionally, but people with ADHD check more items, more often than other drivers.

[Free Webinar: The Teen Brain on ADHD: A Parent’s Guide to Boosting Executive Functions and Building Independence — Together]

Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Medical Review Panel.

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1 Curry, Allison E., et al. “Motor Vehicle Crash Risk Among Adolescents and Young Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.” JAMA Pediatrics, vol. 171, no. 8, Jan. 2017, p. 756., doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2017.0910.
2 Chang, Zheng, et al. “Association Between Medication Use for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and Risk of Motor Vehicle Crashes.” JAMA Psychiatry, vol. 74, no. 6, Jan. 2017, p. 597., doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2017.0659.