Teens with ADHD

Driving with Distractions

The dangers of distracted driving is very real, especially for teens with ADHD. Here, how to keep your child safe behind the wheel.

ADHD teen girl in car is distracted
ADHD teen girl in car is distracted

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.”

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“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 group with ADHD was 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.

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

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.

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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