Teenagers who have ADHD can learn to be safe drivers, even though research shows their risk is higher. If your teenager with ADHD is preparing to become a licensed, independent driver, there are several measures you can take to ensure his safety — and your own sanity!

While driving with the learner’s permit, your teen was always under the supervision of an adult. Your teen is only ready to apply for a driver’s license when he is ready to assume the responsibility of driving safely without adult supervision. If you are uncomfortable with the thought of your teen driving “solo,” extend his driving practice period on the learner’s permit. A driver’s license is not something that must be earned on the birthday your state considers the “maturity date.” Driving maturity and safety have nothing to do with one’s chronological age!

Consider a graduated licensing system

One approach to extending the driver’s training period is to use a graduated licensing system. Graduated licensing is a strategy that allows young drivers to develop safe driving skills while minimizing risk of injury. With graduated licensing, a young and/or inexperienced driver receives a provisional license to drive with specific restrictions; these restrictions are systematically lifted as the driver gains experience and demonstrates competence. To learn about the specific graduated licensing requirements in your state, visit http://www.iihs.org/laws/state_laws/grad_license.html. If graduated licensing is not available in your state, establish a set of rules that make sense to you and enforce these life-saving restrictions yourself.

Preparing your teen for the driver’s license exam

It’s a good idea to prepare your teen with ADHD for the driver’s license examination well in advance. Start by outlining the process of completing forms and taking the vision, written, and driving tests. Role playing the process may be especially helpful for anxious teens with ADHD who also have co-existing learning disabilities. Discuss appropriate behavior and social skills for all aspects of the testing process (i.e., meeting the officials at the licensing department, meeting the driving examiner, etc.)

If possible, obtain copies of the forms your teen will need to fill out before taking the test, and let him practice following the instructions and filling out the forms. If your teenager wants to practice taking the driver’s license exam, you can find several sample tests online.

Discuss and role-play how your teen should behave during the written driver’s license exam and during the “road test.” Be sure to discuss appropriate behavior in the event he should fail either portion of the test. Talk about the words that your teen should (and should not) use when communicating with the driver’s license examiner. An impulsive teen with ADHD may be especially prone to blurting out an offensive response!

Driving is serious business

Talk openly with your teenager about the serious responsibilities involved in being a licensed driver. Be clear about how the death of another person involved in an accident where your teenage driver is at fault would impact him as well as your family, the victim’s family, and the community. If you have examples of local teens who are in prison because of negligent driving in fatal crashes, point them out. Teens need to understand motor vehicle homicide laws and their implications. Some parents think this is too gruesome a topic to discuss with teenagers. But as a parent, you must realize that driving is an adult responsibility — and punishment for adult irresponsibility is often difficult to face.

Applying for the driver’s license

The granting of a driver’s license is a memorable lifetime achievement. On the day of the test, make sure your teen is well-rested and well-groomed. Ask him what he would like to do to celebrate with the family after he passes the test — as well as what he will want to do if he fails the test. Assure your teenager that you will love him whether he passes or fails. You should accompany him but allow him to drive to the driver’s license examination Your teen needs you to be present at this important event, so wait while the testing is taking place.

Plan to celebrate your teen’s successful attainment of the driver’s license immediately after the license is granted. It is not a good idea to allow a newly licensed teen driver to take off to celebrate his achievement with his peers. Sadly, newspaper stories commonly report the death of a teen driver who perished within hours of getting an unrestricted driver’s license. Newly licensed drivers often want to show their peers the symbol of their power and new independence. Help your teenager determine how to do this safely.

It is also a good idea to have a contingency plan for what you and your teen will do if his first attempt at passing the driver’s license examination is not successful. If he fails the test, talk about what happened in a non-judgmental way. Explain that many people fail their first test and that the examiners’ job is to be sure the people they license are safe drivers. Encourage your teen and offer to discuss the exam with him and jointly determine what went wrong. Identify specific problems he had with the written test and/or the driving test. Help him work on those skills so he will be more successful in his next attempt.

Securing auto insurance for your licensed teen driver

Insurance companies often charge higher premiums for licensed teenagers than they do for student drivers. Be sure to notify your agent when your teenager becomes fully licensed. You and your teen should meet with the agent to discuss the additional costs of adding the teen to your insurance policy. Your insurance agent would probably prefer to meet your teen under pleasant circumstances than to meet him while working out an insurance claim!

With your teen present, have your agent compute the costs of insuring your teen if should have:

  • One or two speeding tickets
  • A ticket for negligent driving
  • A fender-bender accident costing $2,000 to repair
  • An accident involving a serious injury
  • A couple of speeding tickets and an accident
  • A conviction for minor in possession of alcohol
  • An arrest for driving while under the influence of alcohol

Make it clear to your teen that if his poor driving behavior raises your insurance rates, he will be expected to pay the difference in premium. If he is unable or unwilling to shoulder that responsibility, or continues to drive negligently, he should forfeit the right to drive and surrender his driver’s license to you until he is more mature.

Draw up a contract for your licensed teen driver

Consider creating a driving contract that sets out clear expectations for your teen’s driving behavior. Establish rules that are important to you and your family. Be sure to include incentives and rewards for compliance with the contract. Here are some tips to help you draw up a teenage driver’s license contract (pdf)*.

Don’t be surprised if other parents whose teenagers do not have ADHD question why you are using a driving contract with your teen. They may criticize you for being too strict and not developing trust in your teenager. As you probably know by now, parents whose children do not have ADHD often criticize the parenting skills of parents of children with ADHD. Just remember that you know your teen’s behavior patterns better than anyone. Because of the behaviors often associated with ADHD and coexisting disorders, your teen requires continuing guidance, clear rules, monitoring, and consistent administration of consequences when needed. After all, your child’s safety is your responsibility.

Remain vigilant

Just because your teen with ADHD has an unrestricted driver’s license, your parental responsibility for his safe driving does not end! In fact, this is the very time when all parents should be most vigilant. Be aware that more teens are killed during the first year of driving alone than any other time.

When your teen becomes a licensed driver, monitoring his driving is just as or more important than it was while he held a learner’s permit. Continue to monitor his driving behavior, administer consequences, and enforce all contract agreements. Your teen with ADHD needs you to set realistic expectations and offer consistent support as he gains experience and good judgment behind the wheel of a car.

Stay optimistic

When raising a child with AD/HD, you face many challenges that parents of kids without the disorder do not. Sometimes those challenges seem overwhelming, but don’t get discouraged. Continue to seek new information that will help your child become a safe and happy individual. I hope you will experience the satisfaction of knowing you have helped your teenager with ADHD develop safe driving habits that will serve him well all his life.

*(Note: You need the Adobe Reader/Acrobat Reader software in order to view the file).

ADHD by other names and acronyms

While Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is the official term and acronym used by today’s mental health care professionals, it is sometimes referred to by other names and abbreviations. For example, it is sometimes called:

ADHD (without the “slash” in the middle)
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
Attention Disorder