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Teens, Driving, and ADHD

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WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Patricia Quinn, MD

Parents of teenagers with ADHD need to pay particular attention to the disorder when their child gets behind the wheel of a car. Young adults with attention problems chalk up as many as four times the number of accidents as those who don't have ADHD.

That's cause for concern, but it doesn't mean you should keep your kid out of the driver's seat.

Require Your Teen to Take His or Her ADHD Medications as Prescribed

Medications help most kids with ADHD focus their attention and curb their impulsive behaviors. That's essential for safe driving, says University of Virginia professor of psychiatric medicine Daniel Cox, PhD.

"If a teen responds to medication, then for that individual, driving and medication should go hand in hand," says Cox, who has authored several studies on ADHD and driving.

His experience goes beyond professional interest. His two sons, now adults, both have ADHD and both had attention problems that needed to be addressed when they learned to drive. Medications were a big part of that. If they were driving, they had to take them.

Cox points out that different people respond to different medications, so you need to find the one that's most appropriate for your teen.

From Cox's research, long-acting forms of the stimulant drug methylphenidate, whether a patch or a pill, do the best job of keeping an ADHD teen's eyes on the road. These once-a-day drugs provide continuous benefits throughout the day and into the evening. Shorter-acting drugs can leave drivers at risk of being caught between doses when behind the wheel.

"Medications are only helpful when they're active," Cox says.

Consider Your Teen's Maturity

Your teen might be old enough to drive, but is he or she mature enough to handle the new responsibility? Research suggests that kids with ADHD may mature more slowly than others. In such cases, "it's like giving a 13- or 1-year-old permission to drive," says Miriam Monahan, MS, OTR/L, CDRS, CDI.

It's crucial that parents determine their kids' ability to make sound judgments, to control their impulsive behavior, and to learn and obey the rules of the road, says Monahan, who is an occupational therapist, driving rehabilitation specialist, and certified driving instructor. She has helped teens with ADHD learn to drive for the past 15 years.

There's no test that shows whether a teen with ADHD is ready to drive. But life skills tests, given by a psychologist or other health professional, can be used to rate a teen's capacity for adult decision making.

"Formal life skills tests are really helpful in determining what a teen's working with," Monahan says.

It may be tough to tell your teen that he or she is not ready to drive, but it may be the right thing to do.

They might be able to master the skills taught in a classroom, but if they lack good judgment, a driver's license should wait.

"The more you can delay it, the better," Cox says.

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