Teens with ADHD

Behind The Wheel with ADHD: Driving Safety Tips for Teens

A teen learning to drive is nerve-wracking for any parent. But add in ADHD, and parents also have to watch for symptoms that might cause distracted or impulsive driving. Learn how to keep your teen safe on the road.

Teen with ADHD sitting in driver's seat, waving keys in front of camera, excited to be learning to drive
Teen with ADHD sitting in driver's seat, waving keys in front of camera, excited to be learning to drive

Driving Safely with ADHD

Teens and adults with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) are more likely than others to be careless drivers, experts believe. In fact, studies have found that teens and adults with ADHD are nearly twice as likely as the general population to have had their licenses suspended.

“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.”

When driving, teens and adults with ADHD are significantly more likely to be convicted for speeding, not obeying signs and signals, following too closely, improper passing, and not following road markings. Additionally they’re at least somewhat more likely than those without ADHD to participate in reckless driving, drunk driving, and poor lane placement.

This doesn’t mean that you have to avoid driving all together as an adult or sign on to being your child’s chauffeur for the rest of your life. Here, you can learn safety tips, suggestions for how to teach a child with ADHD to drive, setting driving rules and more about being safe behind the wheel.

Teaching Teens with ADHD to Drive Safely

Experts believe that, in order to increase driving safety for a kid with ADHD, there’s a 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 so the training burden for these kids often falls to the parent of the child with ADHD.

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Some experts argue that driving can best be taught to teens with ADHD when they’re young — as early as 14. The reasoning behind this is that before a child turns 18 parents have a window of opportunity where they can be both the child’s ally while still being in charge so they’re able to easily influence, give good instructions and establish safe driving habits. Here’s how you can do it:

  • Establish an incentive system for practice driving time. Similar to other behavior incentive systems used with kids with ADHD, 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 practice they have with you, the better they’ll be at driving by themselves in the future.
  • Use the practice driving time as an opportunity to discuss the special challenges facing drivers with ADHD. “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.

Setting Driving Rules

Your jurisdiction may enforce “graduated license” rules in which children are granted full driving privileges in increments. If not, you can enforce restrictions yourself. The rules can be drawn up in a driving contract which parent and child can sign and may include:

  • If your teen takes ADHD medication, they may only drive when it is in effect. This may mean they take it earlier in the morning, or you add a booster dose after school.
  • Restrict driving to necessary expeditions such as school and team events, or after school or summer 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 substance use. 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.

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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 of kids with ADHD 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 bad 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.

ADHD Safety Tips

Lambert and other experts say 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 impact your driving skills. 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. Drivers with ADHD who have 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 drivers with ADHD 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 teens with ADHD drive with friends or parents with ADHD 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 the side of the road to read it. Avoid impulsively deciding to drive somewhere without organizing where you are headed and how you are going to get there.

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