How to Focus

“I’m Too Distracted When I Drive”

People with attention deficit are at greater risk for accidents and tickets. What’s a young driver to do to stay safe and legal on the road?

A road sign to guide you towards uncoding the ADHD mind.
A road sign to guide you towards uncoding the ADHD mind.

I am a 22-year-old with ADHD. I am very impatient and unfocused when I am behind the wheel. I have gotten one violation for speeding and another for running a red light. I am on the verge of losing my license, but I need my car for my job. What can I do? I know that people with ADHD aren’t the best of drivers.

Wes: You’re right, and the research proves it. A study, published earlier this year in JAMA Psychiatry online, studied 17,000 ADHD adults in Sweden and found that an ADHD person’s risk of a car crash is 45 percent higher than a person without the disorder. You’re also right about medication. It cuts a male with ADHD man’s risk in half. Though there’s no clear improvement for women, Heather’s story indicates – and many of my clients agree – that getting behind the wheel without meds can be dangerous. By the way, the Swedish study was not funded by drug companies.

Other research suggests that ADHD drivers are more likely to speed, drive erratically, tap the brakes at inappropriate times, and accelerate into accidents. Thankfully, those subjects were doing their driving in virtual-reality simulators, not on the open road. My 22 years of clinical experience agree. So much so in fact, that I routinely ask about driving when doing an intake interview with anyone over 16.

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Here’s what ADHD drivers can do to decrease risk on the road:

Take a defensive driving course — several times, if necessary. These courses teach you to assume that whatever can go wrong while driving, probably will. You learn to stay constantly vigilant about your own driving and how others are handling the road. You learn to assume that everyone else is about to swerve into your lane or run a stoplight. You are taught to think, “What would I do if that happened?” It brings mindfulness to driving.

Limit distraction. This is good advice for any aspect of life, but it is a lifesaver when driving. Recent research on the use of voice-activated devices (like Siri or GPS voice command) has this to say: don’t. That includes texting and, to a large extent, talking on the phone, fiddling with your iPod, and so on. This is such a serious challenge that I’ve started asking my ADHD drivers to lock their smartphones in the trunk, which has evoked tears in some of my clients. Tears or not, distractions need to be out of reach. You can text after you arrive.

Make things right before you drive. It’s too easy to hop in your car and take off. Instead, take a quick walk around the vehicle to be sure it’s ready to go. Tires inflated? Doors closed? A client recently failed to close her driver’s-side door and lost it to a nearby tree. Now get in the car, sit there for a few moments, and think. “What am I doing right now?” Consider all that needs to be done before you leave: buckle up (please); adjust the mirrors: adjust the air conditioner or heater; make sure your seat is where it belongs; check any weird warning lights on the dash. Ask yourself if everything is as it should be.

[Safety Tips for Distracted Drivers]

Use your cruise control. Never buy a car without this option and use it any time that you’re driving over 40 mph and traffic allows. Cruise control not only reduces your crash risk by keeping you at a safe speed, it will lower your number of speeding tickets.

Heather: Shortly after I was diagnosed with ADHD, I learned my lesson the hard way while driving home from the grocery store. One second I was on the road coming up to a stoplight, and the next I was on the curb coming up to a street sign. I still can’t remember anything in between driving and staring down that sign. Luckily, I realized what I was doing in time to swerve. Not everyone is so fortunate.

Making sure you’re on medicine every time you drive is important, but it’s not as easy as Wes makes it sound, especially at odd times of the day like early mornings or late at night, when your medicine hasn’t kicked in or has already worn off. So do everything you can to plan your driving accordingly. On shorter drives, you need to be conscious of your medication level the entire time you are driving. You could be completely focused on the road and then you zone out for one split second, as I did. That split second may not go well for you.

If you’re driving a long distance, medicine is especially important because you’ll have even more time behind the wheel to zone out and possibly crash or cause an accident. Remember also that later in the day your medication wears off.

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You almost have to scare yourself with the dangers of driving to stay safe. You know how you function behind the wheel, so be aware of that every time you start up the car and keep yourself in check. If you can’t do that, then you’re better off driving only after taking a full dose of medicine.

Driving affects you and every car, building, person, and street sign around you. Keep that in mind when you think about whether you are focused enough to drive.