Strategies to Help Your ADHD Teen Be a Safe Driver
Personal Perspective: Lessons from my ADHD son's attempts at a driver's license.
Factors such as distractions and overthinking can become safety concerns regarding teen drivers with ADHD.
Teens with ADHD may need more time to obtain a driver's license.
Implementing safe driving strategies can decrease reckless driving in ADHD teens.
I recently viewed a webinar about teen drivers with ADHD, which gave me the idea to write about my son’s experience getting his driver's license. Like any parent of a teen anxious to get behind the wheel, I was nervous about my ADHD son starting to drive. This is not surprising when the data on teen drivers with ADHD is so bleak, with studies reporting an increased risk of accidents, more fines and points on drivers’ licenses, speeding, and impaired driving.
My son understands his ADHD, with all its limitations. He would often make fun of himself, teasing about how he would probably drive the car into a ditch. So, how did my son’s experience passing the driver’s test go? It was a bit of a bumpy road (please forgive the pun).
It may take ADHD teens longer to get their driver's license.
In our state, a teen can get a learner's permit at 15 years and 9 months, and a license at 16 years and 6 months. My son took the required driver’s education class and passed the written exam right on schedule. I had been through the experience of teaching someone to drive with my older son, but was nervous my ADHD son, with his inattention and risky behaviors, would be a more dangerous driver.
To my surprise, my son was more careful and attentive than his older brother when learning to drive. He navigated narrow streets with ease, had better spatial awareness (I didn’t feel the need to grab the steering wheel to avoid hitting the mailboxes lining the road), and was careful on the highway. I began to think he would have no problem passing the road test to get his driver’s license.
After my son met all the requirements, I scheduled his road test with the Motor Vehicle Association. At the time of his test, COVID restrictions were still in effect, so the instructor did not get in the car with my son, and the test was conducted on a closed course with limited space for maneuvering the vehicle, as opposed to having him drive through the local neighborhood.
When it was my son’s turn, I wished him good luck and got out of the car. I watched him perform one task after the other, and then I saw him get out of the car before the end of the course. I knew he failed. On the ride home, I consoled my son, listing the names of all his friends who didn’t get their licenses on the first try.
In the coming weeks, we spent time working on the task he failed, and I found out his driving instructor never gave him crucial information about the road test which would have made it easier for him to perform the required maneuvers. True to his inflexible ADHD brain, he was driving for the test the exact way she had him driving during their sessions, which were not conducted on a cramped closed course.
With the new information in hand, I felt confident my son would pass the driver’s test the next time around. So, he went back a second, and third, time and left without a driver’s license (he failed a different task each time). You can imagine how discouraged my son was at this point. This would be hard to take for a teen without ADHD, never mind someone who has little confidence in their ability and constant negative self-talk.
How my ADHD son passed his driver’s test
My son was a hurdler on the high school track team. One day, he was explaining to me that in order to be faster, he had to stop overthinking how to go over the hurdle (what leg was leading, how many steps he was taking between hurdles), since it was slowing his pace down right before jumping. Those with ADHD are notorious for being overthinkers, anxiously worrying about the details and the worst possible outcomes. I looked at my son and told him to stop thinking about it so much, he knew what to do, and to just go over the hurdle. Eventually, his speed improved. After listening to his story, I realized my son was doing the exact same thing when he was taking the driver’s test—overthinking.
A few days shy of his 17th birthday, my son was going to attempt to pass his driver’s test for the fourth time. This time we went to a different Motor Vehicle location, in the morning instead of after school (his ADHD symptoms are worse in the afternoon after focusing all day in school). A smiling older man came out to greet my son, and even joked with him a bit, contrary to the business-like demeanor of his previous evaluators. I could see my son relaxing.
When it was time for me to get out of the car, I reminded him about overthinking the hurdles and told him to forget about the test and to “just drive the car." Although I was trying to be positive for my son, I couldn’t bear to watch the test this time around. When I saw the instructor walking over to me, I simply asked if my son had failed. With that same smile, he said my son was an excellent driver. Finally!
Tips for helping teens with ADHD be safe drivers
Russell Barkley, Ph.D. and Daniel Cox, Ph.D. designed The ADHD Safe Driving Program, a step-by-step approach to help teens to develop safe driving habits. Some strategies to help your ADHD teen be a safe driver can include:
Practicing often when your teen is learning to drive.
Restrict driving to local locations like school or a job.
Limit distractions like cellphone use, music, and number of passengers in the car.
Use an app to monitor your teen’s driving. We used one that would alert us if our sons were in an accident, driving recklessly, or using their cellphones while driving.
Make sure your teen has plenty of time to get where he/she is going (those with ADHD are time-blind and can end up rushing). My son was late for school one morning and, trying to make it on time, passed a stopped school bus loading children, resulting in a $250 fine.
Know your child. Are they mature enough for a driver’s license? Do you feel comfortable with their driving skills? My son had to drive well and with confidence in several environments (e.g., weather, city traffic, highway, narrow streets, long drives) before he was allowed to take the driver’s test.
Consider treating your teen for their ADHD; those who are treated for their ADHD are safer drivers than teens not on medication.