How to Improve Driving Safety for Teens and Adults With ADHD

Drivers with ADHD are far more likely to be involved in crashes, to be at fault in crashes, to be in severe crashes, and to be killed in crashes. The more severe the ADHD symptoms, the higher the risk. Moreover, ADHD is often accompanied by comorbid conditions such as oppositional-defiant disorder, depression, and anxiety that further increase the risk.
What can be done to reduce this risk? A group of experts has offered the following consensus recommendations:

  • Use stimulant medications. While there is no reliable evidence on whether non-stimulant medications are of any benefit for driving, there is solid evidence that stimulant medications are effective in reducing risk. But there is also a “rebound effect” in many individuals after the medication wears off, in which performance actually becomes worse than if had been prior to medication. It is therefore important to time the taking of medication so that its period of effectiveness corresponds with driving times. If one has to drive right after waking up, it makes sense to take a rapid-acting form. The same holds for late-night driving that may require a quick boost.
  • Use a stick shift vehicle wherever possible. Stick shifts make drivers pay closer attention than automatic transmissions. The benefits in alertness are most notable in city traffic. But using a stick shift is far less beneficial in highway driving, where shifting is less frequent.
  • Avoid cruise control. Highways can be monotonous, making drivers more prone to boredom and distraction. That is even more true for those with ADHD, so it is best to keep cruise control turned off.
  • Avoid alcohol. Drinking and driving is a bad idea for everyone, but, once again, it’s even worse for those with ADHD. Parents should consider a no-questions-asked policy of either picking up their teenager anytime and anywhere or setting up an account with a ride-sharing service.
  • Place the smartphone out of reach and hearing. Cell phone use is as about as likely to impair as alcohol. Hands-free devices only reduce this risk moderately, because they continue to distract. Texting can be deadly. Sending a short text or emoticon can be the equivalent of driving 100 yards with one’s eyes closed. Either turn on Do Not Disturb mode, or, for even greater effectiveness, place the smartphone in the trunk.
  • Make use of automotive performance monitors. These can keep track of maximum speeds and sudden acceleration and braking, to verify that a teenager is not engaging in risky behaviors.
  • Take advantage of “graduated driver’s licensing laws” wherever available. These laws forbid the presence of peers in the vehicle for the first several (for example, six) months of driving. Parents can extend that period for teenagers with ADHD, or set it as a condition in states that lack such laws.
  • Encourage practicing after obtaining a learner’s permit. Teenagers with ADHD generally require more practice than those without. A “pre-drive checklist” can be a good place to start. For example: check the gas, check the mirrors, make sure the view through the windows is unobstructed, put cell phone in Do Not Disturb mode and place it out of reach, put on a seatbelt, scan for obstacles.
    Consider outsourcing. Look for a driving school with a professional to teach good driving skills and habits.

Experts do not agree on whether to delay licensing for those with ADHD. On the one hand, teenagers with ADHD are 3-4 years behind in the development of brain areas responsible for executive functions that help control impulses and better guide behavior. Delaying licensing can reduce risk by about 20 percent. On the other hand, teens with ADHD are more likely to drive without a license, and no one wants to encourage that, however inadvertently. Moreover, graduated driver’s licensing laws only have legal effect on teens who get their licenses at the customary age.

Paula A. Aduen, Daniel J. Cox, Gregory A. Fabiano, Annie A. Garner, Michael J. Kofler, “Expert Recommendations for Improving Driving Safety for Teens and Adult Drivers with ADHD,” ADHD Rep. (2019) 27(4): 8–14. doi:10.1521/adhd.2019.27.4.8.