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Avoiding distracted driving is a bigger challenge for people with ADHD

By Zoe Ligairi and Sophia Sewall


Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teens, who crash vehicles at a higher rate of any age group. But hidden within the numbers is a critical but often overlooked subgroup: Teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), are more than twice as likely to be involved in multiple car crashes. 


It’s harder for teens with ADHD to resist the impulse to look at their phones, says ADHD coach and tutor Kathy Essig (Photo by Youthcast Media Group®).

Jeffrey Epstein, a pediatric psychologist and University of Cincinnati professor, reported this higher risk in a National Institutes of Health-funded study in 2022, while noting that 8% of teens have ADHD.  


This shows teens with ADHD who have started driving or who are hoping to get their license are faced with far more challenges than teens without the disorder. ADHD can affect and look different in teens, especially while driving.


ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects the prefrontal cortex of the brain and can be present in people of all ages, including teenagers. These teens can have trouble controlling impulsive behaviors, be overly active, and, overall, have a harder time paying attention.


Teens with ADHD should be especially careful not to create additional distractions for themselves. Distractions such as radio, disruptive passengers, or mobile devices, can make driving riskier for anyone, but can be particularly problematic for individuals with ADHD because they are often more susceptible to external stimuli. 


Jack Barnes, a sophomore with ADHD at Annandale High School (AHS), takes extra precautions behind the wheel. 


“I keep the volume of music down and the windows up to minimize sounds that may distract me,” said Barnes. “I also make sure that when I am driving, I look at the whole road and things around me to avoid being fixated on just the thing in front of me.”

 

Another downside of driving with ADHD is impulsivity, which is common to the disorder. While driving, having impulsive behaviors can lead to many dangerous situations that can not only harm the driver but also others on the road. Some impulsive manners are speeding, abrupt lane changes, or failure to consider potential consequences. 


“There's that level of impulsivity where somebody else [without ADHD] might be able to say, ‘I forgot to put my phone on silent, and I really want to know who just texted me, but I can't,’ whereas that isn't necessarily going to be the trajectory for someone with ADHD,” said Kathy Essig, who owns Essig Education Group in Northern Virginia, which tutors and coaches children and adults with ADHD and executive function disorder. 


These impulsive behaviors can be hard to control, and the danger created from them is so great that Essig recommends teens with ADHD should wait a year or two before getting their driving permits and licenses. 


“They have proven, through studies, that somebody with ADHD during these developmental years can be up to five years behind others in their self-regulation (and) boys more than girls,” Essig says. 


Young people applying for driving permits or licenses need to understand the impact of impulsivity and challenges with self-regulation. Operating a motor vehicle while distracted can make drivers anxious, especially in high-stress situations. Some drivers may experience anxiety around even the idea of driving. Anxiety reduces the brain’s ability to control the processing of emotions. The amygdala and prefrontal cortex (executive functions) work together so if one gets affected the other one is affected too. 


When dealing with anxiety on the road, Essig says it’s important that drivers with ADHD remember it’s important to make “really good choices” and recognize that “safety “is way more important than the timing of where you should have been somewhere.” Keeping things in perspective is vital for staying safe.


Drivers without ADHD must be aware of the risks that come with sharing the road with ADHD drivers. Increased distractibility, impulsivity, poor judgment and decision making, and thrill-seeking are all tendencies that may appear in drivers with this disorder. 


“I believe that having a bad attention to things around me puts me and others on the road at risk, forcing me to put much more effort in while driving than other people might need,” says Barnes.


Nonetheless, there are many safety measures these drivers can take to reduce the number of crashes and traffic violations that are common among drivers with ADHD.


Graphic by Madeline Hartley

Essig recommends that all drivers, especially those with ADHD, eliminate cell phone use, limit GPS when possible, do not listen to anything or only listen to instrumental tracks and avoid challenging situations, like rush hour traffic or bad weather.


ADDtitude magazine also recommends that drivers with ADHD choose their passengers carefully, create travel plans and organize their trips beforehand to allow enough time to arrive, which can help limit the temptation to make impulsive decisions or take risky actions on the road.


Additionally, the group, Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), recommends that ADHD stimulant medications be considered as taking them “significantly improves the driver’s ability to pay attention to traffic on the road and to better follow traffic laws.” 


About 22% of car crashes involving people with ADHD could have been avoided if the person had been using medication, according to a 2017 report in the journal, JAMA Psychiatry. While medication is not for everyone, it can make driving safer by regulating ADHD tendencies. It worked for Hannah Henderson, though she knows she’s still at higher risk. 


"Though driving is still tough, my new medication has helped me remain on task and more focused and able to pay attention to the road and what's in front of me,” said the sophomore at  Annandale High School in Northern Virginia. 



Zoe Ligairi and Sophia Sewall are sophomores at Annandale High School in Northern Virginia, one of Youthcast Media Group’s  journalism class partners. 



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