Teens, Driving, and ADHD

Parents of teenagers with ADHD have more to think about before their child gets behind the wheel of a car. Young adults with the disorder have as many as four times the number of accidents as those who don’t have the condition.

That's cause for concern, but it doesn't mean you need to keep your kid out of the driver's seat. Just take some precautions.

Make Sure Your Teen Has Taken ADHD Medications

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

If your child responds well to her ADHD medication, then "driving and medication should go hand in hand," says Cox, who has written several studies on the disorder 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 watched when they learned to drive.

Research shows long-acting forms of stimulant medications, whether a patch or a pill, do the best job of keeping a teen's eyes on the road. These once-a-day meds benefit your child all day and into the evening.

Shorter-acting medications leave the risk of being caught between doses when behind the wheel.

Cox says different people respond to different medications. So you, your teen, and their doctor should work together to find the one that's the right fit.

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How's Your Teen's Maturity?

Your son might be old enough to drive, but is he ready to handle the responsibility? Research suggests that kids with ADHD may mature more slowly than others.

You’ll need to figure out your kid’s ability to make sound judgments, control impulsive behavior, and learn and obey the rules of the road, says Miriam Monahan, an occupational therapist and certified driving instructor. She helps teens with ADHD learn to drive.

There's no test that shows whether a teen with ADHD is ready to drive. But life-skills tests, given by a psychologist or another health professional, can help get a read on a teen's decision-making level.

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

It may be tough to tell your teen that she isn’t ready to drive, but it may be the right thing to do.

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

6 Tips for the Road

These ideas may help you help your child get used to driving.

1. Choose a manual transmission. Teens with ADHD said they felt more attentive while driving a stick shift, Cox found in a small study he published in 2006.

2. Drive safely yourself. That includes not using your cell phone for any reason while driving. Monahan likes to have parents of her students ride in the back seat while she's teaching. That way they can learn exactly what's expected of the teen driver. Then the whole family practices what they've learned.

3. Limit distractions, because they play a role in almost 60% of accidents involving teens. And kids with ADHD are more easily distracted.Stop your kid from being tempted to talk or text while driving. Make it a rule that cell phones go in the trunk before getting behind the wheel. Make sure your child knows to keep music low, or off, and not to eat or drink while driving.

4. Consider "driver rehab." Your child can take these courses in addition to standard driver ed. They focus on attention, judgment, and impulsivity issues as they relate to driving.

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5. Give them the time they need to learn. A parent, an instructor, or ideally both should supervise teen drivers for as many as 2 years. "Learning often takes a lot longer than parents think it will," Monahan says.

6. Pick your teen's passengers. Mature friends can help a driver with ADHD focus by warning her to keep her eyes on the road, Cox says. Other friends might be too distracting.

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on April 02, 2015

Sources

SOURCES:

Daniel Cox, PhD, professor of psychiatric medicine, University of Virginia.

Miriam Monahan, MS, OTR/L, CDRS, CDI, adjunct scholar, Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation, University of Florida.

National Resource Center on ADHD: “Teens with ADHD and Driving.”

AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety: “Using Naturalistic Driving Data to Assess the Prevalance of Environmental Factors and Driver Behaviors in Teen Driver Crashes,”March 2015.

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