Driving While Distracted: Adult ADHD Hits the Road

ADHD driving

ADHD and driving: For many years, Adult ADHD researchers made it a top priority.  The evidence is clear: ADHD can impair driving safety. Also clear: Medication can improve driving skills.

As for this cartoon, count on it: Whoever created this “A.D.D. Man!” video also did his research on ADHD and driving. Perhaps first-hand research.

Load up the car with a bag of gallows humor, buckle your seatbelts, and watch out for Road Rage Ralph and Sally Soccer Mom! Click on the center arrow to watch the video below.

Then check the excerpt, below, from Chapter 5 of my book, Is It You, Me, or Adult A.D.D.?. It explores the various ways in which ADHD-related driving behaviors can sometimes challenge a relationship.

Driving While Distracted:  The Roller Coaster Hits the Road

My husband’s driving has improved since
taking medication. He no longer “punishes”
drivers who pass him—by flashing his lights,
making rude gestures, and yelling. I’d be so
embarrassed, I’d slink down in the seat.

— Elizabeth

Carol, married 15 years, says her husband is the absolute best driver ever: “At night, Ken notices little animals on the side of the road and has stopped for moose and deer that I never would have seen.”

Denise’s husband stopped for a moose, too—after he slammed into it at 50 mph. “He says it jumped in front of him,” she says, “but God help me, I wonder if Michael could have avoided the collision had he not been playing with the radio, fussing with the cell phone, adjusting the heat—all the things he does while not watching where he’s going.”

Hubby Michael also doesn’t connect the dots, for example, between speeding citations and higher insurance premiums. What’s more, if he gets one more ticket, he will lose his license and therefore his transportation to work. “But he can’t see the ‘big picture’ in anything,” Teresa says.

“White-knuckling it” is how Rory describes the experience of riding with her husband because, as she explains, “It used to be, if I was going to ride with Clint for more than 15 minutes, I took a nerve pill.”

After a particularly nasty road-rage incident, she put the brakes on riding as his passenger ever again; instead, whenever they rode together, she did the driving. He didn’t like it, but she valued her life too much to care. A few months later, she learned about ADHD, and “That explained a lot.”

Driving: A Most-Studied Area of ADHD

There you have it: Some adults with ADHD drive extremely well, some drive less well, and some downright menace our highways.

None of these stories—or the many others shared in my free online support group for partners of adults with ADHD—surprise the researchers who’ve made driving one of the most heavily studied facets of ADHD in teens and adults. These researchers have gathered mounds of data demonstrating that ADHD’s driving-related deficits are real—and even life-threatening. What’s more, they’ve shown that adults with untreated ADHD often remain unaware of their driving challenges.

Consider the results of one 2005 study by a pioneering researcher in this area, psychologist Russell Barkley, and colleagues. Echoing many other studies, the group diagnosed with ADHD showed these outcomes:

  • Had a higher rate of collisions
  • Had a higher incidence of speeding tickets
  • Had higher total driving citations in their driving history
  • Rated themselves lower in the use of safe driving behaviors
  • Used fewer safe-driving behaviors in lab simulators

Are Poor Drivers Self-Aware?

Despite their quantifiably poorer performance when compared to a control group, the adults with ADHD in this study thought they did just fine.

Of course, plenty of people with ADHD prove to be excellent drivers, and many dangerous drivers do not have ADHD, cautions Daniel J. Cox, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Health Sciences Center. Author of more than 170 scientific articles, he has extensively researched driving safety and how disorders such as ADHD, alcoholism, Alzheimer’s, and diabetes affect it.

By and large, though, when it comes to untreated ADHD, the preponderance of evidence suggests critical, even life-threatening, disruption.  This is definitely an area worth paying attention to. It can adversely affect relationships and life itself.

The good news: Medication treatment has been shown to vastly improve driving safety in study subjects with ADHD. But it has to be in effect while you’re driving. That means during the morning and afternoon commutes.

How about you?

If you or your partner has ADHD, do you find it’s affected driving safety?

How does it affect your relationship?

—Gina Pera

This post originally appeared December 1, 2008

30 thoughts on “Driving While Distracted: Adult ADHD Hits the Road”

  1. Hi,

    Just stumbled upon this. I suspect I have undiagnosed ADHD. I am 46 and have most of the symptoms such as being forgetful, running late, getting any on other drivers etc etc. I have been driving gor 28 years and often under very challenging conditions and long hours. Fortunately I have never been involved in a serious road incident. I drive quite well. Never in my life have received traffic light or speed violation. I take driving very seriously and never use phone when driving regardless of it being legal or not as I know I can only do one thing at a time. So far so good. The thing which seriously made me struggle with long drives was sleep apnoea. Ever since I started CPAP therapy three years ago, I can drive 6-7 hours at a stretch without complaining.

    Just sharing my own experience with this.

    1. Hi Vik,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you have stayed safe all these years! I’ve seen drivers definitely get more aggressive and “random” over that time.

      Yes, I know many good drivers with ADHD. As I wrote in the book (excerpted here in the post):

      There you have it: Some adults with ADHD drive extremely well, some drive less well, and some downright menace our highways.

      It’s hard to write about the complexity of ADHD, how there’s no “one size fits all”. Especially when much of what we see on the Internet wants us to believe that people with ADHD are clones of each other and that there is an “ADHD Brain’. 🙂

      One thing to note here. You say you take driving seriously. That means you give it your attention and avoid distractions.

      Some people with ADHD might take it less seriously. They might even get a thrill from speeding and from passing everyone on the freeway, consider their cars a toy.

      You mention sleep apnea. That is highly associated with ADHD. So, I’m glad you are finding CPAP useful.

      Sleep deprivation, including the type caused by sleep apnea, can resemble “drunk driving” on a very real level.

      Best,
      Gina

  2. Thanks for the interesting article and discussion!

    This was focused on problems driving because of distractability and behavioural issues, but what about problems with motor skills, whether planning or execution?

    For instance, the possible inability of a person with ADHD to react to an emergency in traffic requiring very quick and accurate movements? Motor problems seem to be well recognised in other contexts; is there any research on them when it comes to driving?

    1. Hi Inka,

      This was a brief recap of my first book’s chapter on driving. You’ll find more in the book.

      I think it’s self-evident with ADHD, that reaction and coordination are potential issues with driving. And they can be very much related to distractibility, emotional dysregulation, poor working memory, and other ADHD-related challenges in Executive Functions.

      In other words, these challenges directly affect motor skills——planning and executing.

      You can read this 2015 review of ADHD and driving research:

      https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00702-015-1465-6

      I hope this helps.
      g

  3. Hi,
    Dr Barkley, one of the pre-eminent ADHD researchers, apparently got into the field when his brother, who had ADHD, died in a car accident when they were in his 20s. In one of Dr. Barkley’s Youtube videos, he discusses this incident and the dangers of teens and young adults driving when they don’t have fully matured executive functioning skills.

  4. Since I’m on the mailing list I ended up reading some of this while checking my email, no wonder I’m always late getting done or being on time. Deciding to comment I swear not to hyper-focus on this.

    Driving is overlooked, I also want to mention nodding off —I read that it is sort of a defense from getting bored —had no idea it was related to ADD.

    Anyway, I have burned up tea kettles and pans, boiling water for tea etc. while focused on something else, procrastinating about getting to turning off the stove. I need to have the patience to stay with something like that so I don’t get distracted.

    There are so many reasons a person needs to be as alert as possible and paying attention. I am accident prone, an accident led to early retirement. That brings me to this. RPN’s are common in a busy Dr’s office, she was writing according to Dr’s instructions but voiced her opinion said “kids need it to study but you don’t even work”

    I really got P. O.’d. Since then I have been trying to take an approach when others seem wrong, to just kind of laugh it off. Possibly being denied meds, however, is no laughing matter. Part of the diagnostic guidelines do say symptoms must be affecting performance at work or school. What about personal activities? What do you think?

    1. Hi Terry,

      Sorry to distract you — I hope it was worthwhile. 🙂

      Yes, as with nodding off being called a “defense from getting bored”, we have all kinds of “alternative explanations” that obscure the realities of ADHD.

      That RPN deserved a tongue-lashing. Diplomatic, of course. Or not. lol

      Thanks for your comment,
      g

  5. Good article. I’m ADD inattentive, medicated 15 years.

    I didn’t know I wasn’t a good driver because I didn’t have accidents. Now that I’m medicated I can hear criticisms of my driving without reacting defensively.
    Now I use driving as ADD exercise. By that I mean I use it to practice focusing. I drive a car with a manual transmission so I practice smooth transitions. I also practice keeping track of the cars around me and tracking down the middle of my lane. Not all the time, I still drift into dreamland a lot but I’m better.

    I’ve said it before but the thing I appreciate about the work that Gina does is that she’s not just focused on money and jobs. ADD affects everything.

    1. Hi Joel,

      How clever of you. It’s so easy to get in the car and drive and let our minds drift, ADHD or not. The actions become so automatic over time.

      Viewing driving as an “exercise” no doubt fires up those neural pathways and makes you a better driver over time. We should all try it. (But oh….my friend gave me a ride in her Tesla….talk about distractions!)

      I am so appreciative of your kind words. Sometimes I feel I have failed in the “marketing” department. Because my work is all over the place. But guess what? So is ADHD!

      One of my favorite pastimes is finding the connections between ADHD/dopamine-transmission issues and a whole range of potential physical issues. Because it’s not just about focus—but also breathing, heart rate, reading, swallowing sleeping, and good grief….even singing. A budding professional singer told me that medication helped her to hit the right notes more consistently.

      Thanks so much, Joel. I needed a boost today….working 12 hours every day developing this training.

      g

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