Most parents of teens with Attention-Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are not surprised to see evidence of higher driving risks associated with having ADHD. If your teenager has ADHD, you have probably observed lapses in attention, persistence, activity regulation, gross motor control, reaction time, and rule-following behaviors in your child from an early age. Many youth with ADHD are described as “accident prone.” Others seem “spacey” and mentally wander off as they engage in activities. This does not mean that all teens with ADHD are doomed to have poor driving records, nor are they destined to become driving failures. In fact, the difference between unsafe and safe teen drivers has more to do with the parents’ behavior than you may think!
The fact is that there are many teens with ADHD who are skilled, safe drivers. These are the teens whose parents set firm limits and carefully considered all the issues involved in the ADHD diagnosis in conjunction with teen driving concerns before putting their teens with AD/HD behind the wheel. In this article, I will present specific steps you can take to help your teenager with ADHD achieve skill and safety as a driver-in-training.
Even before you allow your teenager with ADHD to get behind the wheel of a car, you will want to consider and address several factors, including:
- The possible impact of ADHD and any co-existing conditions your teen has
- Medications your teenager takes while operating a vehicle
- Your teenager’s maturity level and driving readiness
- State driving laws
- Automobile insurance coverage
- Formal driver training
- Supervised driving practice, including your expectations of your teen
In my book, AD/HD & Driving: A Guide for Parents of Teens with AD/HD, I outline “20 Steps for Parents to Promote Safe Driving Behaviors.” Each step is discussed in depth and includes activities for parents and teens to do together. For this article, I recommend 10 steps to get you started:
1. Model safe driving behaviors. Children are natural mimics and learn by example. Knowing this, ask yourself these questions:
- Are you a good role model?
- Are you an informed and courteous driver?
- Do you use your cell phone while driving?
- Do you push or exceed the speed limit?
- Would you be comfortable watching your teen drive as you do?
2. Address ADHD and any co-existing conditions or behavior problems your teen has that may impact his ability to drive safely. When learning to drive is compromised by mental health conditions (e.g., oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety disorders, or depression) parents and teens must make an effort to understand these complications, and work to minimize the risks involved. If your teen is involved in alcohol or substance abuse, obtaining a learner’s permit should be delayed until your teen has successfully completed a treatment program.
A word about medication
As I explained in a previous article, research studies have shown that medications to treat ADHD help drivers with the condition to be more attentive and in control of driving situations. Consider these medication tips:
- If your teen benefits from medication, make sure he is taking the medication during the times of day or night he is likely to be driving.
- Keep a letter from the prescribing physician to document your teen’s need for the medication, and keep the letter in the glove box of the car. Because psychostimulants taken for ADHD are categorized as controlled substances, your teen may need to produce medical documentation if ever stopped by a police officer while driving. This would apply if your teen is carrying the medication with him, or, in extreme cases, if he is subjected to a urinalysis which would reveal the medication in his system.
- If your teen takes additional medications for other chronic disorders or occasional illness (e.g., allergies), be sure they won’t make him inattentive or sleepy while driving.
3. Determine your teenager’s maturity and driving readiness. Young people with ADHD are often emotionally and functionally immature when compared to their peers. Teenagers with ADHD may take significantly longer to develop good judgment and a mature attitude toward driving. Teenagers who have explosive tempers, or are irresponsible or uncooperative, are not ready to drive. Parents must sign for a learner’s permit to be issued to their child. Grant permission to obtain the learner’s permit only when you and your teen are ready to assume the responsibilities involved.
Graduated licensing is one strategy that allows for 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 lifted systematically as the driver gains experience and demonstrates competence. For a thorough discussion of graduated licensing, go to http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/newdriver/saveteens.
4. Become familiar with state laws regarding teen drivers. To be a safe driver, your teenager needs to know the rules of the road and understand why he is expected to obey them.
5. Select the vehicle your teen will be allowed to use while he learns to drive. Be aware that research has shown that when teens own their own cars, their grades go down and automobile injuries go up. Consider carefully the pros and cons of the car your teen is allowed to drive.
6. Obtain automobile insurance coverage for your teenager. Select (or stay with) a reputable insurance company. With your teenager present, discuss coverage with your agent. Discuss all aspects of liability and collision insurance, considering your total family needs. Teens need to understand that citations for driving errors will increase insurance premiums. It is not in your best interest to cover these increased costs for your teen; he must learn the consequences of his driving behavior.
Obtaining ample coverage is of utmost importance in protecting yourself and your teen from financial liability for property damage and injuries to others caused by your vehicle. All parents of teenagers, but especially parents of teens with ADHD, should consider the addition of an umbrella policy for liability. Be sure that the amount of liability insurance is adequate to protect family assets in case your teen causes an accident resulting in enormous property damage or bodily injury or death of another person.
7. Discuss safe driving expectations with your teen. Talk to him about driving every time you get a chance. Be very clear about your expectations for safe driving behavior. Create a driving contract that sets out clear expectations for your teen’s driving behavior as well as the consequences if he doesn’t live up to the agreement. Teens want to be treated as adults and are usually willing to enter into a written driving contract with parents. (If you are not willing to enforce consequences laid out in the contract, you should not draft the written document.) A written contract eliminates arguments over rules and past agreements. If your teen refuses to abide by the contract, or argues about agreements or consequences, this is a sign of immaturity and a breech of contract! Suspend driving privileges until he is ready to honor the contract. Whether or not you have a written driving contract in place, be aware all parents can have the learner’s permit cancelled if they request the state to do so. Here are some tips to help you draw up a learner’s permit driving contract (pdf).
8. Do not abdicate parental responsibility to a driver’s education class for teaching your teen how to drive safely. Teaching your teen to drive can be a very rewarding experience. Driver education courses in public schools (if they are offered) and commercial driving schools are a great way for teens to learn the rules of the road and discuss the importance of safety, but rarely do courses allow enough driving practice time for teens to develop consistency in skills. Allow your child to practice with you as often as possible, for 20 minutes or more per outing. Youth with ADHD often take longer to learn safe driving skills than teens without ADHD. Some states require documentation of at least 50 hours of practice driving time to apply for a license. That number is a minimum suggestion and has nothing to do with personal mastery of safe driving skills. Your teenager should plan to spend two or three times as many hours driving on a learner’s permit.
Use the practice driving time as an opportunity to discuss the special challenges facing drivers with ADHD. Ask your teenage driver, “Where are you focusing your attention?” and “Were you distracted just then? If so, by what?” Ask him to process the experience with you. This will help him become aware of his individual driving challenges and the need for concentration.
9. Establish an incentive system for practice driving time. Similar to other behavior incentive systems used with kids who have ADHD, this system allows teens to earn extra practice driving time for every increment of appropriate behavior at home. Teens should be warned that if they argue or become oppositional during driving instruction with you, they will lose any driving privilege that they had earned for that day.
10. Prepare your teen for possible driving emergencies. Role-play emergency situations with him. Discuss various scenarios and tell him how you expect him to respond. For example, ask your teenager:
- What should you do when a fire truck or an ambulance is either in front of you or behind you?
- What if you are involved in a personal injury accident? What are the risks of moving an injured person? Stress the importance of remaining calm and still if they are the person injured.
- Be sure your teen understands the importance of staying at an accident scene whether he is directly involved or a witness to a vehicle crash. Talk about the basic instinct to flee unpleasant situations and why all drivers involved in an accident must stay at the accident scene. Stress that the penalties for “hit and run” driving apply to teens as well as adults.
- Role-play the scenario that your teen is stopped by a police officer for a speeding violation. Ask your teen to produce his learner’s permit, vehicle registration, and insurance papers. Be sure he knows how to respond appropriately. Arguing with or showing disrespect to an officer can be costly. Emergency phone numbers, parents’ home and office phone numbers, and coins for emergency phone calls should be placed in an envelope in the glove compartment.
Looking ahead: the driver’s license
While your teenager with ADHD is learning to drive, you need to be actively involved in setting limits and teaching him how to become a safe and responsible driver. The next article in this series will focus on issues you should consider once your teen with ADHD has learned the basics and is ready to apply for the driver’s license.
ADHD by other names and acronyms
While Attention Deficit and 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:
AD/HD (with a slash in the middle)
Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2003). National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (producer). [Cited 15 Nov 2003].
- Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Fatality Facts: Teenagers 2002. Arlington (VA): The Institute; 2003 [cited 2003 Nov 15].
- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), Dept. of Transportation (US). Traffic safety facts 2002: Young drivers. Washington (DC): NHTSA; 2003 [cited 2003 Nov 13].