Teen Drivers with ADHD: Tips on Keeping Everyone Safe

By Beth Levine

Any parent of a teen who is approaching driving age feels some anxiety. If your teen also has ADHD, you need to make doubly sure that they are fully prepared for the experience.

According to a study published in Pediatrics, teen drivers with ADHD are significantly more likely to have accidents, receive traffic and moving violations (for speeding, seat belt nonuse and electronic equipment use), and engage in risky driving behaviors (driving while impaired, eating, texting, speeding) than their peers without ADHD. They are particularly at high risk during their first months of driving.

Why? The skills affected by ADHD are the ones you most need for driving — paying attention, planning ahead and reacting appropriately and quickly, says Greg Fabiano, PhD, professor of psychology at Florida International University, who specializes in ADHD assessment and treatment.

“You can see that ADHD rears its head in a classroom where a child has to make a decision or maybe decide not to do something,” Fabiano says. “When you fast forward to that same person being 16 or 17 years old, and they’re at an intersection where they’re trying to make a left hand turn into oncoming traffic, it’s readily apparent how challenges with attending to the situation around them, or making split second decisions, can cause them to have lots of problems behind the wheel of a car.”

Is Your Teen Road Ready?

How can you tell if your teen is mature enough to start learning to drive? That really is a two-part question, says Fabiano: “The first question is, are they ready to drive under adult supervision if they get a permit? And then the second and probably more important question is: When is the teen ready to become an independent driver without that parent in the car with them all the time?”

Fabiano’s answer to the first question is for parents to get the permits as soon as possible so they can get their kids on the road as much as they can in a supervised driving situation. The teens will need a lot of practice on learning how to change lanes or judging how to make turns when they’re in intersections, how to increase their stamina to pay attention, or even learning to reduce glances away from the road or to the wrong area when they’re driving.

The answer to the second question is more complex. You will be able to make your own assessment as to their progress as you drive with them. Don’t rush into getting the permanent license, but don’t delay too long either.

Fabiano explains: “We know from a number of studies that parents of teens with ADHD do delay licensure. There is the plus to that because those teens are getting more time behind the wheel with supervised practice. But there’s also a downside in that the teen is getting their license after 18, where in most states, they are outside of the bounds of the graduated driver’s licensing laws that include safety features.” (More on those laws below.)

Preparation Is Key

As the saying goes, the best defense is a good offense. Teen drivers with ADHD can become confident and safe drivers with a lot of preparation and practice. Here’s how a parent can help:

Use technology to reduce distracted driving

A new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a computerized driving simulation training program developed by the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital lowered the risk of car crashes for teen drivers with ADHD. It is currently available only in the Cincinnati area but the researchers are anticipating expanding the program.

“Our ultimate goal is to make this training available to all teen drivers with ADHD,” Jeffery Epstein, PhD, a pediatric psychologist with the Division of Behavioral Medicine & Clinical Psychology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and principal investigator for the study, says in a press release. “The hope is to reduce teen driving injuries and fatalities and to provide parents with added comfort about their teen driver’s safety.”

The study shows that technology can help teens learn to focus in a car. A wide range of other technology can also keep teen drivers safer.

Mobile apps currently available include:

And automatic technology systems in cars and trucks include:

Create a driving contract

Create a driving contract that your teen agrees to and signs. Connecticut’s Department of Motor Vehicles provides a good template to use as a starting point. Fabiano recommends these items for an informal driving contract:

  • Follow the graduated licensing laws that all states use. These dictate nighttime and passenger restrictions during different stages of the learning process, and how much supervised driving time the teens need to get under their belts.
  • Teens must take and successfully complete a formal driving course. There are driving rehabilitation specialists who work with drivers with special needs. “They actually have some more intensive training in the skills related to driving,” Fabiano says.
  • The cell phone must be in the glove compartment and silenced so it can’t distract. Absolutely NO texting, dialing or talking on the phone, even in hands-free conditions.
  • No eating while driving.
  • Teens need to ask parents for permission to use car, and be forthcoming about where they are going.

Fabiano concludes: “Driving can be a key to independence for teens with ADHD. It gives them the ability to secure and keep a job, get to their schools, increase social events, which we know is something that’s important for individuals with ADHD. So anything we can do to help them negotiate that transition to keep them safe and the other people that they’re on the road with safe, that’s something we should all figure out how to do.”

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