Driving for teens with ADHD: What parents need to know

Claire McCarthy, MD

Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

For all parents, it’s a scary time when their teen starts to drive. For parents of teens with ADHD, it can be — and should be — even scarier.

ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, is a condition that can cause problems with attention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. These are not problems you want to have when you are driving.

What does research tell us about ADHD in teens and driving?

In a 2019 study published in Pediatrics, researchers looked at information about accidents, violations, and suspensions over the first four years of licensure for about 15,000 adolescent drivers. About 2,000 of these teens had ADHD. Here is what they found:

  • The four-year crash rate for drivers with ADHD was 37% higher than for those without ADHD.
  • The drivers with ADHD had a 62% higher rate of injury crashes, and a 109% higher rate of alcohol-related crashes.
  • Teens with ADHD had a 36% rate of traffic violations, compared with 25% for those without.
  • Teens with ADHD had a 27% rate of moving violations, compared with 19% for those without.
  • 17 percent of teens with ADHD had their license suspended, compared with 10% of those who did not have ADHD.
  • Teens with ADHD had a higher risk of speeding, not wearing seat belts, alcohol and/or drug use while driving, and using electronic equipment while driving.
  • Teens with ADHD had a higher risk of accidents and other problems in the first month of driving.

Delaying driving to 18 rather than 17 didn’t make a difference. Additionally, delaying driving until 18 has a downside. At 18, graduated driving laws may not apply. These are laws designed to put some limitations on early drivers, such as not allowing them to drive with passengers, limiting the hours they can drive, and having stiff penalties for electronic device use.

The researchers also found in a previous study that there wasn’t a big difference in crash risk whether or not teens were being medicated for their ADHD. The best strategies for preventing accidents have to do with skills training — and with parents being involved in shared decision-making about when and how their teens drive.

Safe driving advice for parents of teens with ADHD

Here are some suggestions for parents of teens with ADHD when it comes to driving:

  • Make sure they take a formal driver’s education class.
  • Although medications didn’t seem to make a difference in the study, talk to your doctor about doing everything you can to maximize your teen’s treatment of ADHD before he or she starts driving. This may include medication, behavioral therapy, or something else.
  • Before your teen gets a license, spend lots of time together in the car. Do many hours of driving together, working on skills and behaviors to keep them safe. Don’t let them take the driving test until you feel comfortable that they have learned those skills and behaviors.

Additionally, set rules about safe driving, and enforce them. This is crucial. These rules should cover things like:

  • Number and type of passengers. Passengers increase crash risk. Some passengers are more distracting than others.
  • Speed. Teen drivers must know and obey speed limits.
  • Distraction. Any distraction that causes teens to glance away from the road for more than two seconds increases crash risk nearly four times — and distraction involving an electronic device increases it 5.5 times. Looking at phones is obviously a big distraction. So is looking out a side window, looking at a passenger, reaching for something that falls on the floor, or fiddling with a stereo system.
  • Driving drowsy. Agree on rules to prevent this from happening.
  • Any alcohol or substance use. There needs to be zero tolerance for this.

Parents might also want to consider using technology to help them. Many cars now come equipped with software that alerts drivers about risks or even starts braking before a collision. There are also apps that can help stop people from texting while they drive. Technology has limitations, but can sometimes help.

For more information about helping any teen drive safely, check out these tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Comments:

  1. Deepak Sharma

    Compared with his peers, your teen with ADHD is at greater risk for vehicle accidents and is more likely to receive traffic tickets for speeding, failure to obey traffic laws, and reckless driving. Teens with ADHD are more likely to drive on a suspended license or without a license when there has been a problem…(mygenericpharmacy)

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