Risky Business: Driving with ADHD

The only driver more dangerous than a drunk driver is a teen driver with ADHD. According to an article in The New York Times, “Young drivers with A.D.H.D. are two to four times as likely as those without the condition to have an accident—meaning that they are at a higher risk of wrecking the car than an adult who is legally drunk.” These were the findings from a study by Russell A. Barkley of the Medical University of South Carolina and Daniel J. Cox of the University of Virginia Health System.

For parents of teens with ADHD—and those who share the highways and byways with them—that’s a worrisome statistic.

The mix of inexperience, inattention, and impulsiveness is a potent cocktail for those who get behind the wheel. 

“It’s a bad combination,” explained Dr. Barkley, who also noted that many drivers with ADHD overestimate their driving skills. “They’re more prone to crashes because of inattention; the reason their crashes are so much worse is because they’re so often speeding.”

Preventing Problems

Experts agree that teens with ADHD can become safe drivers, but the process of getting there is likely to be slower and more challenging than it is for their peers without attention issues.

Some suggest teens with ADHD may be better off postponing driving. “If I were a parent of an ADHD or other special-needs kid, my goal would be to delay licensing,” said Dr. Bruce Simons-Morton, senior investigator at the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development.

“They mature, they accommodate to their deficits, and they’re more likely to take medication.”

Medication seems to play an important role. A number of studies have found that ADHD medications that focus attention can reduce the risk of accidents. In fact, Dr. Barkley maintains that medication should not be optional and he further encourages the use of extended-release formulations that work into the night hours when most accidents occur.

Other experts focus on maturity as an important indicator. As stated in the article, “If a teenager with ADHD is showing consistent poor judgment or has earned only limited independence, he may not be ready. Behavioral problems can be a red flag, regardless of whether they have to do with driving.” Adds pediatrician Dr. Patty Huang, “If your kid is that oppositional and defiant, she shouldn’t be driving.”

Other helpful strategies include hiring a professional driving instructor, allowing for an extending learning period, close parental monitoring after the license has been obtained, and forbidding the use of cellphones.

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