How many times have you made an impulse decision when driving and then said a quick prayer immediately afterwards?  Well, if you are like me that will have happened many times. Imagine if you are a teen with ADHD, then the risks and the consequences are multiplied. Teens on the road are a high risk group and teens with ADHD are even more likely to have an accident. An adult who is driving under the influence of alcohol is less likely to have an accident than a teen with ADHD! Some figures estimate that the ADHD teen is two to four times more likely to crash than the normal teen. 

Decisions we make when driving 

When we make a decision while driving, we are well aware of the consequences but we are able to calculate pretty accurately time, distance and we can filter out sensory messages which could affect that split second timing. 

Now if you are a teen, that decision is much more complicated and not nearly as automatic as for an adult.Add in ADHD and the picture becomes even more complex and scary: 

  • impulsivity means little or no awareness of the consequences
  • distractability is increased by use of cell phones and other devices
  •  less focus
  • poor attention
  • inability to filter out incoming sensory messages such as noise, talking, etc. 

How the University of Buffalo is helping teens 

Gregory Fabiano is an associate professor at UB and he has been involved in perfecting a virtual reality driving simulator which helps teens to become more aware of the risks and to train them to become better drivers. 

Prof. Fabiano has also been active in helping parents to improve their parenting skills when dealing with ADHD teens so his work on the driving simulator fits in very well with this. He has also won the distinguished Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers and received a grant from the National Institute of Health’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

What does the virtual driving stimulator do? 

Teens are told to start driving and the simulator takes them on to a virtual road. The simulator provides a moving screen, visualization, sound effects (even screeching tires) and processes the reactions of the teen driver. Simulations with different accident scenarios are then followed : 

  • texting while driving. Fabiano’s research has been unable to identify anyone who can text and drive without impairing their driving ability.  Actually, teens are much better at texting and driving than adults. The only problem is that they miss more stop signs!
  • when the teens have an accident in the simulator they realize that texting and driving do not go together.
  • the simulator gives a beep every time a risky action such as sudden acceleration is taken
  • a monitor helps teens and parents afterwards to identify actions which led to accident situations and crashes while on the simulator.
  • teens are shown how their actions can impact on other drivers and lead to accidents. 

Once the research is completed, a diver education program for both parents and teens with ADHD will be developed and implemented. 

University of Virginia Health System 

Researchers at this university also use a virtual reality driving simulator. But their research has a slightly different focus. Which is better for an ADHD teen – a manual or automatic?  Research shows that when the teen has to concentrate on changing gears and other manual tasks, concentration and attention improve and they drive better and more safely. 

The research was led here by Prof. Dan Cox, Professor of Psychiatric Medicine. They asked teens to use the driving simulator in both automatic and manuals modes. They also tested them at and11 .pm which are the peak times when accidents involving teens occur. 

The results clearly showed that using the manual car was a great aid for the diver to: 

  • focus better
  • pay more attention
  • make fewer impulsive decisions
  • take fewer risks
  • be more aware of speed and distance 

Although more research is needed, driving a five speed manual car involves secondary tasks which  seem to help the ADHD driver to focus better.  This may also be linked to other research which shows that secondary physical movements like fidgeting in class actually help learners concentrate. 

7 Tips to help your ADHD teen to drive more safely 

  1. First decide whether it is really necessary for your teen to learn to drive. It might be better to wait a few years. Older teens tend to be more mature.
  2. Ask your teen when you are driving to note what you are doing. While this could lead to some nasty jokes about your driving, it is a great way of raising awareness before your teen gets behind the wheel.
  3. Many experts (including world famous ADHD expert Dr. Russell Barkley) recommends that the first stop is the doctor’s office and not the driving school. The reason is that medication of some sort will be needed to help focus and also standard eyesight and hearing tests should be carried out.
  4. Have you taught your teen any road sense and can he ride a bike on the street? This could be a good way of judging whether he or she is fit to learn to drive a car.
  5. If your child also suffers from a co morbid disorder such as ODD or has some defiant and aggressive issues, driving a car is not recommended at all.
  6. If parents are involved in helping the teen to get in the minimum of 50 hours road practice, they should insist on a contract whereby no cell phones are allowed.
  7. I know some parents who have had an extra passenger side brake installed because they feel safer and often it is minor cost compared to major repairs after an accident. 

Being aware of the above could make driving a lot less risky for everyone and reduce the number of accidents associated with ADHD drivers. 

More resources for parents : 

Robert Locke MBE, is an award winning author and has written extensively on ADHD and related child health problems. Find out more about ADHD natural treatment here.

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