By Laurie Dupar, Guest Contributor
“Mom, can I have the keys to go meet Cheryl at the mall?”
“Dad, I just need the car for about an hour so I can take my friends to get some ice-cream.”
“Mom, it’s so hot out! Can I just drive to the pool?”
Not only do adults often drive more in the summer, particularly on highways while on vacation, but teens who are no longer confined to the school setting often drive more as well.
If you are an adult with ADHD or have a teen diagnosed with ADD, extra caution may be needed.
An increasing body of research demonstrates that individuals with ADHD are far more likely to have lapses and errors while driving, get stopped by the police for traffic investigations, receive citations, and be involved in collisions than those without ADHD.
ADHD: Risk Factors when Driving
Driving requires the brain to be focused and aware of many different situations – what is happening inside the car, what is occurring just outside the car (on all sides) and where the car is going. Being unaware of how much gas is in the tank or sleek conditions from rain or missing an exit can cause major problems. So it is no surprise that a number of the common symptoms of ADD can create driving-related risks.
In particular, the top three ADHD symptoms – impulsivity, distractibility, and inattention – can magnified the risk. Impulsivity can often lead to speeding or other risky maneuvers, while various types of distraction (from companions in the car to billboards on the highways) pulls attention away from the traffic. And inattention leads to delayed use of strategies to ameliorate or avoid a dangerous outcome, as well as a tendency to miss a turn and get lost.
Other related risk-factors present in some individuals having ADHD include slow processing speed, visual processing and memory challenges, sensation seeking, poor risk-perception (resulting in risk taking), difficulty with rule-following, and difficulty in managing emotions and anger. Additionally, conditions that can co-occur with ADHD, in particular Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) and Conduct Disorder (CD), are factors in negative driving outcomes.
For teens, the maturational lag common with ADHD creates another risk factor. Even when teens can master the information needed to drive, maturity of judgment is a critical factor: a safe driver needs to apply rules learned at the right time, in the right place, and under the right circumstances.
Before and when learning to drive, steps can be taken to assure a well-trained, well-prepared driver.
- Get treated for ADHD. Medication, particularly methylphenidate, has been shown to positively impact attention during driving. Attention, speeding and irritability with other drivers are some of the factors positively impacted when medication is “on board.” Of course, it’s important to make sure the medication is effective when behind the wheel, so long-acting doses are worth considering. Be aware that driving at night, when meds have worn off, may increase risk.
- Take extra time in the driver-training phase. Teens with ADD, and perhaps other new drivers, benefit from increased practice and supervision when learning to drive. Some experts have recommended up to two years of supervised driving for teens with ADHD to assure that sufficient practice in a wide variety of driving situations can occur to enable teens to drive safely when on their own.
- Look for a specialized training program to substitute for or supplement standard drivers-ed training. Two options include:
- a program designed specifically for drivers with ADHD and/or
- a driving rehabilitation course which zeroes in on attention, judgment, and impulsivity in driving.
- Assure a good role-model for the driver-in training. New drivers learn a lot from just watching others!
- Before a teen starts driving, consider developing a contract outlining safety rules and related expectations as well as potential consequences for violating these driving agreements.
Safety Tips for ADHD Drivers of All Ages
- Use a manual transmission. This practice has been shown to increase alertness and engagement among drivers with ADD.
- Wear a seatbelt – and make sure other passengers do as well.
- Avoid use of the cell phone, of course. Even hands-free phones can limit attention to the road and increase the risk of an accident. Turning the phone completely off while driving can help avoid the temptation to check a text or pick-up the phone when someone calls.
- Don’t eat while driving. Opening bottles or wrappers, maneuvering a sandwich or burger, even unwrapping a stick of gum reduces focus on driving. Pull off the road if you need to eat something.
- Don’t “drink and drive” – this can only exacerbate safety concerns for any driver, and more-so with ADHD.
- Set-up your audio needs before you drive. Listen to music if it aids attention, but don’t change stations, fiddle with an i-pod, or adjust volume and balance while driving. It’s safest to set up your audio choices before pulling onto the road, and to pull over again if you want to make changes.
- Don’t watch a video! If passengers in the car are watching a video, make sure you can’t see the screen. If the audio is distracting, ask that the volume be kept down or earphones be used.
- Select passengers in relation to safety. Moms with ADD may be better off not driving the carpool of noisy children. Teens with ADHD may benefit from driving with a mature friend who will encourage attention to the road, but shouldn’t drive with any friends that might be distracting, or worse yet, encourage risky behavior.
- Plan your route in advance. Use of a “talking” GPS system can be especially useful because it prevents the need to look away from traffic to read written directions.
- Develop strategies to increase attention in potentially monotonous driving situations, such as a long highway drive. Listening to up-beat, lively music, frequent stops for exercise, or a companion to trade-off driving with, can all help assure a safe drive.
Finally, should any problems arise, be prepared.
- Have your driver’s license and insurance information with you any time you drive.
- Note on your calendar when your license, and registration need to be renewed. Note when to pay your car insurance.
- Consider carrying a roadside safety kit in the trunk of your car “just in case.”
- And here’s a zinger: be aware that behaviors typical of ADHD often mimic signs of driving while intoxicated (DUI). Examples include difficulty sustaining attention, trouble following a long string of rules, and interrupting. Should an officer stop you and think you may be driving drunk, tell the officer that you have ADHD. It’s not an excuse for poor driving, but – if you are not drunk – you can better defend yourself against a DUI conviction if you’ve made your diagnosis clear. (For more information on this issue, see David S. Katz’s article “ADHD and Driving” in The Champion, April 2013, p.44 at http://www.nacdl.org/Champion.aspx?id=27989)
So, when handing your teen the car keys this summer, or when preparing for that trip to the beach yourself, make sure you’ve taken care of the following: thorough drivers training, time to set-up carefully for safety before pulling onto the road, and advance preparation for emergencies. Then, don’t forget the sunscreen!
Laurie Dupar, Senior Certified ADHD Coach and trained Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, specializes in working with clients who have been diagnosed with ADD/ADHD and want to finally understand how their brain works, minimize their challenges and get things done! Through individual/group coaching, live speaking, and her writing, she helps clients and their loved ones use effective strategies to minimize their ADHD challenges so they can experience success. She is the co-author and editor of 365+1 Ways to Succeed with ADHD and author of Brain Surfing and 31 Other Awesome Qualities of ADHD. For more information, please visit http://www.coachingforadhd.com.