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ADHD Teens and Driving

Here are 6 ways to help your teen become a safe and independent driver.

Teens and driving are a risky combo, especially when you consider that auto accidents are the leading cause of death in teens. Add ADHD to the equation and driving risks skyrocket. That's because teen drivers with ADHD are three to four times more likely than teens without it to have collisions and suffer injuries related to auto accidents. The lack of focus and attention mixed with the impulsivity that teenagers with ADHD experience may be to blame and can easily make driving a much riskier, error-prone proposition.

Does that mean ADHD teens should skip the coveted "on your way to adulthood" milestone of getting a driver's license and just keep bumming rides from parents and buddies? Not at all. Instead, experts recommend taking a more deliberate and gradual approach to becoming -- and staying -- a safe driver. That approach includes parents taking specific steps to help guide and support their teen's progression to this important, independent adult activity. Here are some tips and guidelines to help your teen with ADHD become a skilled, safe driver:

1. Find the right program. Ask your teen's school or your family therapist about the availability of local driver-education programs designed specifically for novice drivers with ADHD or other learning disorders. Behavioral researchers are in the process of developing specialized training programs that include one or more of the following features:

  • More time spent in special interactive driving simulators. Extending this early phase of training beyond what is typically included in traditional driver-education programs may help solidify and improve performance once your teen is behind the wheel of an actual car. Researchers are also examining whether simulators that can accommodate both the student and an adult may help improve driving performance in ADHD teens.
  • Safe-driver's checklists that can be memorized or frequently reviewed, and which include all the safety tasks that become automatic for non-ADHD drivers (like buckling up and checking rearview mirrors and blind spots), may help improve driving performance.
  • Hazard-perception intervention training. One study of male students with ADHD showed that making drivers more aware of traffic hazards that could lead to a collision improved response times to such hazards.

2. Take a more gradual approach. Most states require that programs for driver training and licensing use a "graduated," multiphase system of learning. That means students must pass the first level -- most often a supervised driver-permit stage -- before moving on to the next. So if your teen barely passes one level of driver's education or performs poorly, insist that he or she repeat that part of the class before moving on to the next level.

3. Get involved in the learning process. Take a more hands-on approach with your teen's driving by regularly monitoring his or her progress, newly developed driving skills, and driving habits. That means doing many ride-alongs. Instituting frequent supervised practice sessions -- both during driver-education classes and after your teen has been issued a driver's license -- is the best way to keep tabs on his or her skills behind the wheel.

4. Communicate proactively. Schedule regular one-on-one talks to see how comfortable (or uncomfortable) your teen is feeling about his or her driving abilities. You may even ask your teen to keep a driving log, noting any near collisions or driving errors (e.g., missing turns or drifting onto the shoulder of the road). Keep in mind that teens and adults with ADHD may tend to overrate their own driving abilities. You can also use these one-on-one sessions to review the "rules of the road" and to ensure that your ADHD teen is following a safe-driver's checklist.

5. Monitor meds. If your teen benefits from medication, make sure it is taken during the times of day or night he or she is likely to be driving. While on ride-alongs, closely monitor how the medication affects your teen's driving ability at various times, and work with his or her healthcare team if you feel adjustments need to be made. Research suggests that psychostimulant drugs, including the commonly prescribed ADHD drug methylphenidate (MPH), may significantly improve driving performance in teens and adults who have ADHD. In fact, one study found that, in simulated driving tests, MPH worked better than amphetamine salts or a placebo in reducing incidents of speeding, improper braking, erratically controlling speed, and straying onto the shoulder. Your teen’s doctor can provide more info on once-daily, controlled-release MPH.

6. Minimize driving distractions. Using a cell phone or iPod, fiddling with the car stereo, eating or drinking, or carrying a carload of noisy passengers can be dangerously distracting to the most skilled drivers, but even more so to a novice teen driver with ADHD. Establish clear rules for your teen, including turning off cell phones and other devices (or better yet, putting them in the trunk), tuning the car radio or plugging in the desired CD before pulling out of the driveway, and having no more than one (or no) passengers in the car at a time. (Related: Read about other possible dangers of talking on your cell phone.)

As a parent, it's your responsibility to establish and enforce rules and expectations for safe driving behaviors. And when discussing your teen's driving privileges, always be sure to frame the conversation within the context of his or her overall ADHD treatment plan. (Related: Get tips and pointers on tackling tough topics with your teen or tween.)

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