New Driving Program for Teens with ADHD

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide
  • A new project has been developed to help teenagers with ADHD become safer drivers.

     

    This is a good thing, considering the following sobering statistics:

     

    Teen drivers with ADHD are three times more likely to suffer a significant injury, four times more likely to crash a car and are eight times more likely to lose their license.

     

    At the University at Buffalo North Campus in Amherst, New York, researchers have developed a high-tech driving simulator where young drivers play a video-like game, in which they drive through a virtual landscape filled with computerized driving hazards.

     

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    "Emerging research shows that ADHD significantly increases the risks of tickets, road rage, accidents, injuries and deaths," said Gregory A. Fabiano, lead investigator for the project and assistant professor in the University at Buffalo's department of counseling, school and educational psychology.

     

    Driving accidents are the main cause of death in teenagers.  Add ADHD to the mix and the risks of a serious accident or death are even higher. Fabiano's goal is to make young potentially dangerous drivers safer on the road once they complete the virtual training.

     

    "These are the riskiest drivers, and the gap between teens with ADHD and other young drivers narrows some, yet continues into adulthood," said researcher and author, Russell Barkley, Ph.D. As more researchers recognize the risks involved, more and more research is being conducted to figure out ways to make teen drivers with ADHD safer on the road. Recent studies have included using stimulant medications during driving simulator situations to see if driving improves under such conditions. Now, medications and/or behavioral therapy are being used during actual driving experiences to see what works in improving safety while driving.

     

    Research has shown that behavioral therapy, when used by itself or in combination with small doses of stimulant medication to be a promising combination. In fact, the studies show that they can be more effective than medications alone.

     

    Says Fabiano, "We want to teach skills that a teenager can apply to new situations and make them accountable so that they use those skills. His hope is that the pilot study will lead to a federal grant so he and his colleagues can develop a larger research project.

     

    What's also interesting about the program at the University at Buffalo is the focus on communication between parents and their teen driver and the use of positive reinforcement. Parents learn to control themselves when their teenager inadvertently "runs" a stop sign during the simulation or when they brakes too hard.

     

    Both parent and teen sit in the simulator which is in the front half of an actual car, which sits on a platform. The car tilts, vibrates, makes car noises and essentially mimics the driving experience for both driver and passenger. The car drives through a virtual environment, with the scenes projected on a screen in front of the individuals, while a computer simulates various dangerous scenarios, including a deer crossing the road and other similar real life situations.

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    Monitors are also placed in the car to beep when the driver stops too quickly or accelerates too fast.

     

    "Teenagers with ADHD - the teens who need the most driving instruction - often get the least because they're not communicating effectively with their parents," said Fabiano.

    Chris Zeigler Dendy, ADHD expert and author of "Teenagers with ADD and ADHD", endorses the idea of using a contract but notes it isn't the complete solution to the problem.

     

    "There is no guarantee the good intentions will translate into the right actions at the moment they're needed", she states.

     

    Dr. Barkley has his concerns as well and remains skeptical as to whether teenagers will benefit from behavioral therapy once they are behind the wheel, unless the program builds in some accountability.  

     

    "It's a practical problem. Teens drive well in training, but can you get it to endure? To me, it's an open question," he said. Additionally, Barkley notes that young people with ADHD often don't have a realistic picture of their driving skills.

     

    "Teens with ADHD tend to evaluate their driving performance as normal when, in fact, it's horrible," he said. "Then there is the disorder itself. It's often not a problem of knowing how to behave. It's about acting on what you know."

     

    Counters Fabiano, "Behavioral therapy won't endure unless families learn to continually work on the skills they learn. The question is whether you can teach skills that can be applied to new situations." In addition, he points out that many teens aren't able to take medications for one reason or another, thus his program offers a viable solution for those youngsters.

Published On: February 03, 2009