A new study found that adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are 36 percent more likely than other teenage drivers to get into a car accident. The findings were published Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

Previous studies had already found much higher rates of crash risks for young drivers with ADHD. A survey carried out in 1993 found that adolescents who have ADHD are four times more likely to get into car accidents than those who don’t have ADHD.

Teenage Driver
Teenagers with ADHD are more likely to get into car accidents. Image credit: DCBA.

The new study claims that earlier research had limitations, like using small samples of adolescents from specialty clinics and relying on self and parent-reported car accidents. In the new report, however, the researchers used a larger sample of over 18,500 electronic health records for young people, including almost 2,500 teens with ADHD.

Adolescents with ADHD are more likely to get into car accidents, especially when driving long distances

The data came from six New Jersey primary care practices, which are part of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia network, and that was linked to statewide driver licensing and crash databases from 2004 through 2014.

Thomas Power, a psychologist and one of the co-authors of the new study, as well as the director of the Center for Management of ADHD at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said that the findings indicate that the risks around adolescent drivers with ADHD are manageable.

ADHD Driver
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is a chronic condition characterized such as hyperactivity, impulsive behavior, and difficulty to sustain attention.  Image credit: iStock.

“The presence of ADHD among young drivers warrants concern,” said Power, according to CNN. “But the findings suggest that, as a general rule, we shouldn’t be extremely concerned or fearful for allowing these youths to drive.”

If ADHD is untreated, these symptoms can impair a driver in a manner that resembles intoxicated driving, according to the nonprofit National Resource Center on ADHD.

According to the nonprofit organization, people with ADHD are especially at risk during long-distance or highway driving. There are certain laws in the country that prohibit some actions while driving, such as talking on the phone, eating, drinking, texting or fiddling with the stereo, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Adolescents with ADHD struggling to learn to drive could seek help from a driving rehab specialist

The study also found that teens with ADHD are less likely to get their driver’s licenses in general and that they are more likely to receive it at an older age. Power noted he does not think there should be any changes made to state legislations to regulate licensing of teenagers with ADHD, but he did say that parents should ensure that these adolescents are emotionally ready before starting to drive.

“The first stage is to make sure the youth has sufficiently strong communication skills, problem-solving skills, decision-making ability, judgment and level of responsibility, to advance to the learning-to-drive stage,” said Power, according to CNN.

Power also explained that if an adolescent with ADHD is struggling to learn how to drive, it may be a good idea for them to work and train themselves with a driving rehab specialist. Those specialists work with drivers who have special needs to help them feel safe and confident while driving their vehicle, he noted.

However, Stephen Hinshaw, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in ADHD, and who was not involved in the new study, does not consider a lower-than-expected risk of car accidents as a reason to worry less about teenage drivers with ADHD.

“If I’m the victim of a car crash and there was a one percent chance of an increase, I think it’s a major concern,” he told CNN.

Adolescents with ADHD should take medication if they’re going to drive

The new study noted that the adolescents with ADHD were diagnosed with the condition based on assessments from primary care physicians, rather than more accurate testing. Thus, it doesn’t guarantee that every youth in the study has ADHD, said Hinshaw, adding that one of the leading causes of increasing rates of ADHD diagnoses is primary care doctors’ appreciation in place of a specialist.

Hinshaw believes that along with informing adolescents with ADHD about the seriousness of operating a vehicle, it is important to ensure they have a treatment plan in place. He noted that the treatment could be medical or therapeutic, depending on the adolescent’s needs.

Teenage Driver
ADHD treatment may considerably help drivers with ADHD. Image credit: Justin Tallis.

In May, another study published in JAMA Pediatrics claimed that drivers with ADHD who are medicated have a dramatically lower rate of car accidents. On the other hand, the new study found that out of the 2,479 youths with ADHD, only 12 percent were medicated in the 30 days prior of receiving their driver’s license. Hinshaw agreed that’s a similar percentage of the overall amount of adolescents with ADHD who take their medication.

Power told CNN that the researchers were surprised that such a low proportion of adolescents with ADHD were prescribed a drug by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia system doctors at the moment they received their driver’s licenses. He noted that a high percentage of novice drivers with ADHD are not taking medication when they drive. He believes that it is important for these adolescents with ADHD to receive medication, as there is clear evidence that shows that taking it can reduce crash risk.

Source: CNN