How Adult ADHD Can Affect Driving

ADHD can affect driving

When I started researching Adult ADHD and relationships, way back in 1999, I found an impressive body of research on ADHD and Driving.  Researchers such as Daniel Cox, using driving simulators, clearly documented ADHD-related driving challenges. Moreover, they showed that medication could improve driving safety. That was big. It made an impression.

I shared some of this early research in Chapter 5 of Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?

In this essay from the You, Me, and ADHD group  series, Taylor J. shares her personal reactions to reading this chapter. As a woman with late-diagnosis ADHD married to a man with late-diagnosis ADHD, she offers a rather special perspective.  In other words, this isn’t an “ADHD vs Neurotypical” issue. It’s a Staying Alive While Driving issue.

—Gina Pera

I Prayed My ADHD Spouse Would Be Safe on the Road

By Taylor J.

Adult ADHD can affect driving? Who knew?  My husband drove a 1979 Ford Bronco for most of our marriage. That is, until it caught fire in a Home Depot parking lot. He saved the burned-out shell of it so he could fix it up….someday.

Before treatment, I concluded his tendency to get into wrecks while driving other people’s cars was entirely because he was accustomed to the slow, heavy hunk of metal he’d been driving for so long.

In reality, that slow, heavy hunk of metal may have “weighed him down”—and saved his life.

I prayed every hour that he’d be safe on the road, and counted the minutes till his return.

“Checking Out”—On the Road

Another problem was driving long distances: He would simply fall asleep behind the wheel, with no warning. I would be reading or sewing, and suddenly the car would start to drift into the other lane. I’d look over to see his head lolling back and forth.

We devised a system. I would scratch his arm from the elbow up, and he would design his dream roll-top desk in his head. Then, as soon as we found a safe place to stop, I would take the wheel.

It was only later that we discovered this is probably another manifestation of ADHD. That is, boredom leading to, in a sense, “checking out.” Our self-styled strategy, developed before we knew anything about ADHD, served to keep his brain engaged in something more interesting than following that line in the road. It also kept us alive.

I Wasn’t the Best Driver, Either

Meanwhile, I wasn’t winning Safe Driver Awards. In fact, I would become distracted by a phone call, a CD, or talking to someone in the backseat. I once even read the first two chapters of a book while waiting at multiple red lights in an urban area. Dumb, dumb, dumb! Nearly all of my wrecks have been rear-end collisions, with me at-fault.

Gina writes:

“No other life activity affected by adult ADHD has been studied more thoroughly than driving. Consistently, these studies show that stimulant medication is effective in mitigating ADHD-related driving deficits.”

Neither of us has had a wreck since we started medication treatment.

As with finances, Gina points out, driving is not a problem in every adult who has ADHD. (See the findings from the ADHD Partner Survey below; the respondents were partners of adults with ADHD.) And, every bad driver is not an untreated ADHDer in disguise. But there are many ways in which ADHD can affect driving.  As Gina writes, “By and large, when it comes to untreated ADHD, the preponderance of evidence suggests critical, even life-threatening disruption.”

ADHD specialist Russell Barkley even proposed that “excessive speeding” be included as a common ADHD symptom.

ADHD driving

Truly A Matter of Life and Death

How can we recognize ADHD driving behaviors in ourselves and in our partners? Gina helps us to spot these with a symptom-list from educational consultant Marlene Snyder, the author of ADHD & Driving: a Guide for Parents of Teens with ADHD (2001) [now out of print].

Studies indicate 4-10 percent of children have ADHD. If 4-10 percent of new teen drivers are distracted on the road, wouldn’t that mean that their lives are at risk? Wouldn’t that mean that other people’s lives—like my kid crossing the street to get a stray soccer ball—are at risk as well?

It bears repeating: “Consistently, these studies show that stimulant medication is effective in mitigating ADHD-related driving deficits.” Understanding this just became a matter of life and death.

ADHD can affect driving
Excerpt from “Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.”?

This Chapter’s Discussion Points:

  • Has ADHD negatively affected driving at your house, or is this a symptom you get to miss? (If so, yay for you!)
  • What kind of problematic driving behaviors do you see—in yourself, your partner, or your teen?
  • Has medication helped to improve driving safety? Or have other strategies been used?

Further Reading on ADHD and Driving:

Here are the three posts I’ve written on ADHD and driving over the years:

Driving to Destruction: The Distractions Add Up

So You Think You Can Text and Drive?

ADHD & Driving While Distracted

We welcome your thoughts below in a comment.

Your story will help others. Please feel free to respond to the discussion even if you haven’t read the chapter (but I recommend that you do!).

—Gina Pera


24 thoughts on “How Adult ADHD Can Affect Driving”

  1. The driving problems are sadly something I know all too well. It has actually gotten to a point with us, where I stopped feeling safe even getting into the car with him!

    I used to suck it up and try to deal with it, but the longer it was happening, the worse it was getting and his logic behind it was just as horrible in some cases. He gets frustrated and angry behind the wheel and I would become the captive audience, for his rage fueled, misunderstandings about what he needed to do, what just happened, my disagreeing with him over something, etc. He would become incredibly angry over some minor thing, you know things that wouldn’t even matter 10 minutes later.

    When he would have these, what I now know are RSD, bouts of anger, all he would care about is angrily bashing me with his opinions as fact, until I fell silent and was near tears. I still remember the first time I put my foot down and told him no, I am not going with you.

    He used to get upset over his brother and would throw clothes on that were appropriate, instead of being able to face him, try to make me get ready and would drag me along and rant at me, taking his anger out on me the entire trip. I actually had a therapist at the time and I had him speak to her and she spent the entire hour, trying to make him understand, that no matter how much he “just wanted me to get in the car” I had a right to say no.

    There are so many instances where he has gotten distracted too, forgotten things. He once left the back passenger side door open and started pulling out of the driveway, into light traffic and I had to alert him, because he didn’t notice the door ajar warning on the car! He had cataracts at one point and I ended up taking the keys from him, because he was blind enough that he zoned out and didn’t see a turn we were supposed to make, or the truck heading right at us in the opposite direction! I had to yell at him and snap him out of it and he managed to jerk the wheel at the last minute. He still rolls his eyes when I mention it.

    There are so many other things involving him and driving and he is on medication now, but it has reached a point that, despite me not being able to drive myself, I just could not go with him in the car anymore. Even if it’s absolutely necessary, I have been traumatized enough that I grapple for another way.

    I can’t afford much currently and my insurance won’t cover any specialty therapists, so I am not sure how to get through this, now that he is better with meds. Even though he is, there is always that fear that it won’t work for some reason and we will be in danger because of it. Sorry this was such a long comment, I just really needed to get it out there. He has finally been self aware enough that I told him and he feels horrible about it. I am pretty much isolated at this point and I am not sure where to go from here.

    1. Hi Audra,

      I absolutely hear you. Your survival instincts are probably protecting you in a way they couldn’t at first, because the behavior might have been so confusing.

      My suggestion is to keep optimizing ADHD treatment strategies….medication that is especially in effect when he is driving, sufficient sleep, etc.

      I don’t believe it’s helpful to call these outbursts “RSD”. That is a commercially concocted phenomenon that everyone seems to believe now….because no one fact-checks the Internet. 🙂

      What you are seeing as “RSD” is actually ADHD itself, along with a pile-up of poor coping responses from the years of living without diagnosis/ treatment.

      When you see he has better control of himself in other ways, maybe you can start edging into riding with him again. But there’s no law that says he can’t be the passenger when YOU drive.

      You might also want to resist making critical comments on his driving in the past. It’s a new chapter now, as long as ADHD treatment continues, it’s time to leave SOME of the past behind.

      Though it is absolutely reasonable that you would have a hard time easing back into the passenger seat. Give it all the time you need.

      If you feel isolated, check out my virtual support group, for the partners of adults with ADHD.

      take care

      take care

  2. For most of our 18 yr marriage, I have driven everywhere and now I know why. As I/we have come to understand the world of adult ADHD over the past several years, it has become clear that his driving is affected.

    It was never more clear than when we took a roadtrip from Chicago to Florida and back this past summer. When DH was driving, he would get in the left lane and speed up to the car in front of us, tailgate, flash the lights, etc, to get the slower driver to move over to the right. Often the driver wouldn’t move fast enough for him, so then DH would dart into the right lane, speed up and then do an aggressive lane change in front of the car on the left. That’ll show ’em!! 😉 Then he didn’t trust the GPS unit we were using, so he took out his phone and pulled up the maps app and was checking it against the GPS, all while driving late at night!!! Most of the time while he drove on this road trip, I had to put my earbuds in, put my eye mask on, and take a nap or I would have been yelling at him the whole time. Did I mention our two kids were in the back of the car? At one point it was getting so bad, though, that I told him I had to go to the bathroom so he would pull off. We got out at a rest stop and took a break, then I just got in the driver’s seat when it was time to hit the road again. We were in TN at that point and I ended up driving the remainder of the way home. Now we are talking about another road trip this summer and we will most definitely have a VERY frank conversation about driving before we leave.

    I do worry sometimes because DH commutes 100 miles a day (50 miles each way). I am shocked he hasn’t received more tickets or been in more accidents. He has received two red light tickets (caught by the camera) but that is it. He recently had a fender bender–he was definitely at fault–but the other car had no damage so thankfully we didn’t have to involve insurance. The damage to DH’s car was minimal & only cosmetic, so we didn’t bother fixing it.

    The medication piece is interesting. I’m not sure when DH takes his rx in the morning. I’m guessing it hasn’t kicked in when he hits the road. And because he works long hours, it has likely worn off by the time he gets on the road to come home.

    Any time we drive anywhere together as a family or even to go out just the two of us, I ALWAYS drive. I will continue to do so, especially after reading this chapter!!!

    1. Hi Deb,

      I think that’s a very wise move, your taking over the driving when the family is in the car (or even just the two of you).

      Some of the saddest stories I’ve heard in the group are those wherein the ADHD partner is driving, has a bad accident, and the partner is disabled. Then the partner is dependent. It’s a very tenuous position.

      Also, if you can, make sure your dh has sufficient life and disability insurance. Look after yourself.


    2. We both have life insurance, but I will definitely make sure he has adequate disability coverage. I know he gets some through work, just not sure of the details of the policy. Good suggestion, thanks.

  3. Pingback: Myth #8: Having ADHD Is No Big Deal!

  4. Gina — I love the cartoon! And Taylor is a hoot! Thanks for making the “book club” so much fun and so informative.

  5. I really like driving and tend to find it fun, so traditionally I don’t really have driving issues (though I do have ADHD). ONE TIME…I got distracted by a cup of yogurt that fell over on my passenger seat…and I went off the road and destroyed a bank of mailboxes. That was years ago, and since then, I have not had a driving issue (knock on wood)…and over the years, I have driven a lot.

    However…in high school, I had a boyfriend who would constantly fall asleep at the wheel. He would fall asleep at other times when he was not engaged in an activity. He actually crashed three cars in one year. One night, while still a teen, I got in a fight with his mother, because she was demanding that he drive home and I was telling her he was clearly too disengaged to drive (he was already falling asleep). I ended up driving him home. I heard that years later, in community college, he was finally screened for ADHD, but the person who told me wasn’t sure of the outcome. If I had to guess, I would actually think that Asperger’s was probably a better bet…based on his obsessive interest in sound recording (and rigidity…and food rules…actual tantrums…and a bunch of other things…). I won’t go into detail…but let’s just say his level of interest was such that it was a good think he found a career in it, because he might have ended up homeless, otherwise. Of course…we all know that Asperger’s and ADHD are frequent travelling companions 😉

    My sister…now she also crashed three cars in about two years, when she was younger (I’m pretty sure she’s an undiagnosed ADHDer) but not because of sleeping. She was always multitasking while driving…smoking, talking on her phone, often steering with her KNEE because her hands were too busy doing other things. She also drives like a demon. She seems to be out of the business of crashing cars these days. However, she is “accident prone” still, in other ways. For example, she recently suffered two traumatic brain injuries in a short period of time and is gradually recovering from them.

    1. A bank of mailboxes!! Glad you didn’t hurt yourself, Katy!

      Your boyfriend sounded like Taylor’s husband: getting bored with driving and falling asleep.


  6. During the 12 years we have lived together, my boyfriend has totaled three trucks, all by rear-ending the person in front of him, and has backed into at least eight cars because he just assumes the coast is clear and guns it in reverse. He also gets speeding, red light/stop sign, and parking tickets 3-4 times a year, with most of the speeding tickets happening in school zones. (!!) But he swears he’s a great driver and that everyone else on the road (including me) is an idiot. However, I have been in only one accident during those 12 years, and it was a drunk driver who changed lanes into me.

    Medication hasn’t helped him. Defensive driving hasn’t helped him. I now refuse to go anywhere with him when he’s behind the wheel. I drive or we don’t go. Period.

    1. Wow, Persephone. I’m glad you have taken a stand on this issue. For your safety!


  7. OMG, I could write an entire book on this subject! I swear I cannot figure out what DH focuses on when he is driving; it’s definitely not the car in front of him based on how much he slams on the brakes! Prepare for whiplash when you ride with him.

    My college age daughter and I just returned from a “road trip” vacation with him. (He was given “rules of the road” before we left…no speeding, no weaving, no yelling, etc. Frankly, if we could have afforded all of us flying to our destination and then renting a car, I probably would have done that to avoid the driving issue, but it was either drive or forego the whole vacation.) The trip was a good one, but I honestly felt like I had to give my full attention, at all times, to the road as the front seat passenger. He can get so focused on something off on the horizon that he doesn’t see what’s happening right in front of him.

    I often remind DH that driving is not a competitive sport. To his credit he has really been trying to do better. Each time I get in the car I remind him, kindly and gently, that I want a peaceful ride, not an Indy 500 type of experience! 🙂

    Sidenote….Gina, your book was a lifesaver when DH and I were separated a few years back. Not surprisingly, he announced he was leaving with no warning or explanation. Merely packed up his green garbage bag of clothes and left. I knew his longstanding struggle with ADHD was a major player in the separation. (Not piling on him…I too had developed unhealthy coping mechanisms for his many ADHD behaviors.)

    I bought your book and it really helped me frame his behaviors in a way that helped us get through that separation. I was SO angry, and when I thought about his behavior in the framework of a medical/biological model, it helped lift so much of my hostility. I referenced the book many times in our joint therapy sessions and gave a copy to our therapist as well. We reconciled after six months. We will always be a “work in progress” even after many years of marriage thanks to the challenges of ADHD. But we have awareness and strategies, so we face each day with the tools to minimize the impact of ADHD. Some days it works really well, other days not so much, and that will always be our challenge. But, we move forward with knowledge and hope.

    Thanks for your wonderful book and safe driving to all!!

    1. Hi Julie,

      Thanks for leaping into the discussion. I remember those death-defying drives days all too well!

      And I’m so happy to know that my book helped you two. Thanks for mentioning it!


  8. Dr David E Klein, DPM

    I had a lifetime of driving accidents that fortunately did not lead to a fatality, but I was in a “High-Risk” insurance pool through-out my many years of driving, living with ADHD not professionally diagnosed and under treated. It was only after my retirement that I was diagnosed & treated with stimulant medication and education & coaching that gave me the tools to improve my driving and all the benifits. The last suggestion that my coach shared with me was that by listening to a CD either music or audio actually improves my driving concentration, and it does! dek.

    1. Hi Dek,

      Better late than never, eh? Now you can fully enjoy your retirement!

      I could see how listening to the radio might help some people–it’s stimulating–and then distract other people.

      Thanks for your comment,.

  9. I must admit i do love to drive fast…. its a rush .. but when my son was born i knew it had to stop so i slowed way down and am very mindful when driving…. my son is now 23 so i could go back to speeding which i sometimes do ….but not like i used to… now my husband thinks everyone is out to get him when driving… he likes to be the first in line and the only car on the road… I have to say i have been in accidents but all have been the other driver hitting my vehicle because of not paying attention. all were men. I think the hardest part as a ADHD person is my impatience with other drivers….but that too has mellowed…

    1. Hi Kim,

      I’ve heard about drivers such as your husband — “Yes, in fact, I do own the whole road!” 😉

      I can’t offer any scientific evidence, but my observations over the years and some responses to my ADHD partner survey indicate….women with ADHD might be better drivers than men with ADHD.


    2. Lisa Anne Cole

      ADHD is your excuse, selfishness is your problem.
      The safety of other people doesn’t is insignificant due to your desire to “drive fast”

    3. Unfortunately, the “need for speed” can be like any other addiction, blinding the person to others’ needs and safety—and their own, too.


  10. DH solved his driving issues by not driving, but his undiagnosed parents are another story. For the most part they do ok, although Mom almost drove us into a support pillar for an overhead bridge because she was distracted with trying to follow directions. And it was dark. Could have happened to anyone, but FIL….

    DH has told stories (which FIL admits are true) of long distance trips with him and DH. FIL would get sleepy, so he would nap behind the wheel while DH steered from the passenger side. Cat naps, FIL would say. Yeah.

    Then there are the scavenger hunts where if FIL sees something of interest in the road ahead, he’ll open the driver’s door and maneuver the car to where he can scoop it up. Kind of like Forrest’s box of chocolates; you never know what you’re going to get. I haven’t witnessed this, but have been the recipient of the goods which consisted of a nice razor, gym clothes and gym shoes. Tossed the clothes and shoes…ick.

    On a camping trip when DH was a kid, they had a folding camper. DH was difficult to wake up, so FIL just closed the camper on top of him and drove off. What was MIL doing? You got me. I’d be freaking out if someone folded a camper on top of my kid not knowing if he’d wake up scared or suffocating. Of course, DH took it in stride being a ADHD/Aspergian kid and everything was just hunky dory. Eee….

    Now my FIL is 75 years old and still rides his motorcycle. He’s very safe, he assures me. (rolls eyes) He once send DH to the store on it. DH doesn’t have a driver’s license of any sort. The bike fell over and it was too heavy for DH to pick up. I think someone stopped and helped him. Now tell me, would someone in their right mind let their kid (he was probably in his 20’s), who had no training driving a motorcycle, tell him to go to the store on it? Really?

    So there are my scary ADHD driving stories. If DH drove, I’m sure there would be much more, but I’m the driver in our house and I’m sticking to it.

  11. I have always been a terrible driver. When I was young I was terribly distracted by my friends as passengers – luckily cel phones were not a “thing” yet in the mid 90’s. These days my issues are more spatial-perceptual. I feel like I don’t know where my car begins and ends. Parking and pulling into tight spaces are an ongoing problem.

    1. Hi Liz,

      You hit on a big one for teen drivers with ADHD: they might do okay on their own but add some chatty passengers and look out.

      You know, I’m pretty good with spatial perception, and never had trouble parallel parking. But many cars today are sort of bubble-shaped, and it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to see the edges of the car! That’s certainly true in my 2002 Camry.

      I guess that’s why manufacturers have started adding those “parking assist” programs, as if we need another screen to distract us. 🙂


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Stay in Touch!
Ride the ADHD Roller Coaster
Without Getting Whiplash!
Receive Gina Pera's award-winning blog posts and news of webinars and workshops.
P.S. Your time and privacy—Respected.
No e-mail bombardment—Promised.
No Thanks!