By Gayle Sweeney and Ann Shanahan, Guest Contributors
Of all possible risks, including illness, substance abuse, and even violence, none is more likely to cause serious injury or death than a motor vehicle accident, especially when young people are driving. In fact, motor vehicle crashes are the current leading cause of death for American teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The news gets worse when we look at teens who struggle with ADHD and other executive-functioning challenges. Nothing in the school-based or commercial Driver’s Ed programs covers the special risks associated with the symptoms of ADHD.
In 2013, per mile driven in the U.S., average teen drivers aged 16 to 19 were three times more likely than those aged 20 and older to be in a fatal crash.
Teenage drivers with ADHD, compared to other teens, were:
- Seven times as likely to have been in two or more accidents
- Two times as likely to have had a speeding ticket.
- Five times as likely to have had a traffic citation.
- Four times as likely to have been in an accident.
- Four times as likely to have been at fault for the accident.
- Six to eight times more likely to have had their license suspended or revoked for their driving behavior.
- More likely to have driven an automobile without adult supervision prior to becoming a licensed driver.
Common Mistakes of ADHD Teens
Three of the most common traffic violations for teens with ADHD are:
- failure to yield
- response to hazard situation
ADHD teens are, by definition, often inattentive, impulsive, or distracted. As a result, they are more likely to exceed the speed limit, try risky maneuvers, or miss a stop sign. Many teens with ADHD lose track of time and therefore run late. They think they can make up time by driving faster, which can cause them to lose control of the vehicle. Coupled with their lack of experience at driving in diverse conditions, these teens place themselves at serious risk of an accident, especially during the first year of driving.
WHY is it worse for ADHD Teens?
Executive functions are the brain functions that activate, organize, integrate, and manage other tasks. They enable individuals to account for the short- and long-term consequences of their actions and plan for those results. An impairment of one or more areas of executive functioning, which is common in ADHD, adversely affects driving competency.
Let’s look at what is happening.
Competent Driving requires the brain to focus simultaneously on many different situations:
- what is happening inside the car
- what is occurring just outside the car
- where the car is going
These different tasks require executive functioning skills that may be directly impaired for a person who has ADHD. Here are three very common ADHD symptoms that magnify the risk of driving:
- IMPULSIVITY: speeding, risky maneuvers
- DISTRACTIBILITY: reading billboards; listening to conversations among passengers
- INATTENTION: delayed use of strategies to avoid dangerous outcomes; missing a turn or lane change opportunity; getting lost
Maturational Lag Common in Teens with ADHD
In addition to impulsivity, distractibility, and inattention, the maturational lag common in teens with ADHD creates another risk factor for safe driving: maturity of judgment. This is a critical factor that calls for the driver to be able to apply relevant driving rules and strategies at the right time, in the right place, and with an appropriate response to the conditions presented.
In youth with ADHD, the brain matures in a normal pattern but is delayed by several years in some regions of the brain, compared to youth without the disorder. (National Institute of Mental Health NIMH, 2007). The delay in the ADHD brain is most prominent in regions at the front of the brain’s outer mantle (cortex), which is important for the ability to control thinking, attention, and planning.
How hard is it for an ADHD teen to get a Driver’s License?
The procedure for obtaining a driver’s license today remains minimal, depending on the location. Some states do not even require a learner’s permit. Some allow a permit before age 16. Although some states have installed graduated licensing, the restrictions apply to only the youngest drivers. Granting a license is a state’s right, so there are variations in requirements from state to state. Three stages of progression from non-driver to fully licensed driver are common to all:
- Learner Stage
- Intermediate Stage
- Unrestricted License
What can coaches do to help keep young drivers safe?
Educate your clients about the risks of teen driving and suggest mitigating strategies.
Refer clients to driving schools in your area that are certified in ADHD and driving (a list can be found here: behindthewheelwithadhd.com/adhd-certified-driving-schools).
Suggest that clients learn to drive—and drive—cars with manual transmissions. Researchers at the University of Virginia conducted tests on teens ages 16-19 diagnosed with ADHD. The researchers trained all of the teenagers to drive using both automatic transmission and manual transmission (stick shift). The results showed that teens drove twice as well in a car with a manual transmission than with automatic transmission. Anything that brings the driver’s attention back to driving is a good thing!
Help clients to devise strategies to ensure medications (when relevant) are taken. To date, stimulant medication is the only therapeutic intervention for ADHD that has demonstrated the clear ability to improve driving performance. If you are vigilant that your teen takes medication for ADHD to help with schoolwork, use the same vigilance concerning driving. It is especially important in the summer and on weekends when most teenage driving occurs.
Encourage the reduction of distractions: Parents should consider the use of a cell phone blocker for use in the vehicle (Google this – there are many options).
And finally, because of our personal concern regarding the safety of our teens and young adults (collectively, we have 6 children, some with ADHD and some without!), we have developed a smartphone app to help young drivers stay safe. It puts drivers through a quick pre-departure safety check, not unlike what pilots use before a departure, and records the data for download and parental review.
We invite you to learn more about it at behindthewheelwithadhd.com
Gayle Sweeney and Ann Shanahan are ADHD and Executive Functioning Coaches who specialize in working with teens, college students, and young adults who have ADHD and other executive functioning issues to help them set goals and create strategies to achieve them. They also coach moms and other adults who want to explore new ways they can define and prioritize their goals, move past their obstacles, and find new strategies to create a vision around their life’s purpose and what they really want to accomplish. As co-creators and authors of the new program “Behind the Wheel With ADHD”, Gayle and Ann hope to share their passion for helping people focus on specific strengths and weaknesses in a remarkably tailored driver education experience.
To learn more about Gayle and Ann’s ADHD coaching practice, visit their website: shahahansweeneycoaching.com