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ADHD & Driving? Research Points to Meds



When we first learn to drive, we pay attention to every little detail—staying in the lane, how much pressure we need on the gas or the brake pedal, the drivers around us, using our turn signals. Once we have enough practice, we tend to not think deliberately of each of these actions. The unconscious part of our brain takes over those details, freeing our minds to think about other things. But is that a good thing? 

Drivers affected by ADHD have challenges with executive function. They are at greater risk of having car accidents and receiving traffic tickets for speeding or traffic violations. For teen drivers with ADHD, the risks are even greater. 

Research shows that car crashes for drivers with ADHD are dramatically reduced when drivers employ medication as part of their treatment plan. But driver safety isn’t as simple as just taking your medication. What else do you need to know before you get behind the wheel?

Distracted driving

Music, phone calls, texting, eating on the go, adjusting the temperature, videos to entertain your children – all these things can contribute to distracted driving. They take your focus off the road for brief moments or extended periods of time. Distracted driving accounts for more than half of car crashes.

It is easy to think that it’s “okay” to do something other than focus on driving. Yet, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, taking your eyes off the road for five seconds at 55 mph is like driving the length of a football field with your eyes closed. 

ADHD increases risks for drivers

ADHD impairs executive function, which is critical for driving. Driving requires you to process a huge amount of visual information, anticipate the actions of other drivers, and coordinate multiple actions with your hands and feet. Multitasking automatically lowers your ability to place your full attention to a task and can even make it harder to perform the skills needed for driving. We talk more about multitasking and ADHD in Are You a Multitasker? this week.

Daniel Cox, PhD, is one of the leading researchers on the effect ADHD has on a person’s driving abilities and has been a guest expert on driving for one of our Ask the Expert webinars.

“Automobile accidents are a leading cause of death for people between ages 6 and 25,” Dr. Cox tells UVAToday for the University of Virginia. “For adults who don’t have ADHD, after age 25, the accident rate starts to decline significantly. That’s not true for those with ADHD. They are elevated during adolescence–three to four times more collisions, injuries, etc.–but the rates don’t go down, as they do for the general public, as they get older. The good news is that medications improve not only driving safety, they reduce collisions. [W]hen ADHD people are on medication, their accident rates radically drop.”
 
Reduce risks with medication

Researchers looked at 2.3 million drivers affected by ADHD and found the rate of car crashes was dramatically lower for drivers taking medication to help manage their ADHD symptoms. The researchers found a 38 percent lower risk of accidents for men when they were taking medication, compared to when they were not taking their medications. For women, the risk was 42 percent lower. These reductions were found across all age groups in the study.

Taking medication is not enough to prevent a crash—understanding how your symptoms may affect your driving is essential. ADHD medications have limited amounts of time when they are active in a person’s system. Discuss your symptoms and when you are normally driving with your healthcare provider to determine the best medication for you and the best time to take it.

Tips to reduce distractions

There are non-medication steps you can take that will significantly minimize distractions:

  • Turn off phones and electronics before you drive. Talking on the phone and texting are obvious distractions, but even just hearing a call or other notification can be distracting. If you must make a call or check a text, pull off the road. Most states have laws against texting or using a phone in handheld mode while driving. You might not get into a crash, but you could still get a ticket.

  • Use a driving app or GPS. Most use voice commands to guide you. Set it up before you drive and pull off the road to make changes.

  • Keep music low or off. If music helps you while driving, choose your station, CD, or playlist and set the volume before starting the car. Do not change it or fiddle with the controls while you are driving. 

  • Keep videos out of sight. Make sure the video screen is out of sight and laptops or tablets are in the backseat. Motion on screen while you’re driving is difficult to ignore. Keep the volume low, or ask those watching to wear headphones. 

  • Don’t eat and drive. Eating while driving is a common cause for distraction and, if you drop or spill, could result in a time when your eyes will be off the road. 

  • Have an Easy Pass for tolls. Many highways have automatic payment systems for tolls. They have the added benefit of not needing to keep change on hand or plan ahead to pay tolls.

  • Leave earlier. It’s far easier to make a mistake when you are in a hurry and easier to correct one when you have more time.

Good driving habits are possible

Driving presents multiple challenges for people affected by ADHD, but research shows medication management helps to significantly reduce the risks of a car crash across all age groups, regardless of the level of experience of the driver. Take the time to understand how your symptoms may affect your safety as a driver, and discuss medication options with your healthcare provider. 

For more information:
 

This article appeared in ADHD Weekly on June 08, 2017.
     


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