Q: My 15-year-old son is diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and eager to get behind the wheel of a car. I’m concerned he’s not mature, responsible, or attentive enough to manage this responsibility. After all, he forgets his homework half of the time. I know a driver’s permit is a rite-of-passage at 15-years, but what am I to do?
A: Handing over the keys is an anxiety-provoking time for any parent, even more so for a parent who has a teenager with ADHD. The statistics are alarming as ADHD teens are four times more likely to have an accident while driving, six to eight times more likely to have a license suspended or revoked for poor driving, and practice less safe driving habits than their non-ADHD peers.
But years of research also suggest ADHD teens can be successful drivers. The winning formula includes significant preparation, minimizing distractions, and setting limits. As a parent, you will need to role model safe driving and ensure your teen has the tools to overcome the additional obstacles of inattention and distractibility caused by ADHD.
Preparation: You and your child should frequently practice driving together. When it comes to time-intervals for driving practice, the sweet spot is about 20-minute intervals. Less than 20 minutes does not accomplish much practice and more than 20-minutes can feel daunting at the beginning. These intervals can extend as you feel more confident with your child on the road. State Farm recommends a tiered driving process: Level 1 (0-6 months) driving only at daytime; Level 2 (6-12 months) driving extended into evening time; Level 3 (12-18 months) driving freely with established rules (see below). Parent and teen should log their driving times: date, time, conditions (daylight, dark, clear, rainy, etc.), location, and driving interval.
Another aspect is actually planning the trip: Where are you going? What is the driving time? Any problematic areas/construction we need to plan for? Is there an alternative route that would be better? Regularly having these conversations with your teen will teach them to think through the entire driving experience rather than just jumping behind the wheel. Once you arrive at your destination, you should also talk with your teen about what caused distractions while you were on the road. For instance, did billboard signs take away attention or was your teen focused on looking at the car on the side of the road rather than the car quickly stopping in front of them? You can use these conversations for an assessment of distractions and as a way to prepare for the next drive. The conversation can start by saying, “The last time we went out for a drive you mentioned difficulty paying attention to the road during open country. We’re going to be driving through the same type of area today, so let’s prepare for how we can manage that one today.”
Minimize Distractions: The first major distraction is the cell phone. You will want your teen to have their phone for contact and emergencies, but we have all seen those commercials about driving while texting. You can establish a rule that cell phones must go off or in silent mode and be placed in the console between the two seats. The console is an excellent location because it secures your phone in the case of an accident rather than flying off the seat and out of reach. You might think, but they may need to use Google Maps. Yes, they made need a GPS. Quite frankly, the early stages of driving should only focus on familiar locations where they do not need a map. After your teen successfully demonstrates good driving habits and ventures into more unfamiliar territory, consider providing a GPS rather than the phone. The GPS can be on the dashboard or windshield. It should be pre-programmed while they are sitting in “Park”. While a GPS device may seem out of date, it prevents distractions from text messages, phone calls, and App notifications.
The second distraction is music and or the radio. You can limit your child to pre-programmed stations so they are not fiddling while behind the wheel. Even more distracting is connecting Bluetooth and A/V jacks, so our recommendation is to stay with pre-set radio stations. CDs are also a good options but your teen should insert the CD he wants before putting that car in “drive.” Finally, set rules about appropriate volume levels.
Limits: Setting rules of no eating, drinking, and phone use are a great starting point. You may also want to limit music volume and the number people/friends allowed to ride with your teen. If on medication, your teen will want to continue taking medication as prescribed. Rules about reporting where your teen is going and completing a driving log upon return are excellent ways to keep your teen’s focus on the full driving experience. You should also tie your teen’s behavior outside of the car so it is associated with his driving privilege. Showing impulsive behavior or poor decision-making at school or with friends also suggests your teen is not ready to drive and his driving privilege can be taken away. As your son follows these rules, you can offer more freedoms like having one friend in the car.
Similar to coping with other aspects of ADHD, driving requires significant practice and patience. You will simultaneously need to be a coach, parent, and ally. Having candid (not critical) discussions to help your teen with distractions and provide positive coping statements will go miles with preparing your child for his driving journey.