The LD/ADHD Teen Driver: Risky Business or Worth the Risk?

Teenage boy learning to driveLearning to drive can be difficult for many teenagers especially if they reside in a high traffic area. It can be equally stressful for parents who are teaching their teens with specific learning disabilities. These disabilities can include processing delays, perceptual difficulties, memory, executive function disorders or ADHD, which can compound the challenge. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. With a little planning, time and a lot of patience your teen can learn to drive and gain the independence that many teens crave and need to be successful on their own.

Is your teen ready?

Although your teen may look physically ready to drive that does not mean they are emotionally ready. Assessing their desire to drive is also important. Many teens expect to get their license shortly after the required age, while others don’t mind putting it off a little longer. Remember it is okay to delay learning to drive if your teen isn’t ready.

Should we seek help?

A professional driving school can be a good option for many parents and teens. If you as the parent are nervous teaching your teen to drive you may want to seriously consider a driving school. Showing your anxiety while in the car with them may cause some tense moments between you and your teen which could impact their ability to process directions. In this case, supervision by a teacher in a dual-controlled car with a brake and extra hours of instruction can help ease your tension as well as make the difference between success and failure for your teen. It is important to discuss your teen’s needs with the instructor before you register so they are aware and you know you have the right fit. Some negatives to a professional driving school might be the amount of in-class reading and frequent tests making it difficult for some who struggle in this area. Group settings with peer pressure might also be difficult for some teens. However, a bonus to driving schools –besides less pressure on you as the parent– is that attendance can help reduce insurance rates. Ask your insurance company to find out more. Driving programs differ, so check out a few and decide which one will fit your teen best.

Online driving courses can also be an option. Many states offer these courses. Be aware that there can be a completion timeframe. So your teen needs to be diligently working on the course to finish within the deadline. Supervision by a parent frequently is needed to make sure scenarios are well understood. Sharing your own experiences with your teen while reading the text can also be helpful. Since each course is different you may want to research the readability of print offered, (maybe it can be read to them), types of quizzes, number of quizzes, etc. Actual road driving is also needed to fulfill the requirements of a learners permit.

Simulation training programs are another option to prepare new drivers for circumstances they may meet on the road. The bonus of these programs is that they are accomplished in the safety of a simulated environment. One such program created by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety is Driver-Zed.  This program can be experienced by driving on your own PC! The site advertises, “Full-screen, full-motion, real-life interactive video puts you in the driver’s seat! You’ll use your eyes and brain to spot trouble before it happens. Spot all the risks and handle them right, and you’ll score a perfect ZERO, as in Zero Errors Driving (ZED).” You can obtain more information on their website,

State Farm offers a program called Road Aware that can be accessed on their website, A web-based training program that simulates hazards in the driving environment, Road Aware® provides teens with experience in recognizing and anticipating common driving hazards that they might not otherwise see. And it allows teens to make mistakes and learn from them without putting them or anyone else on the road at risk.

Ready to hand over the keys?

So you and your teen have decided that they are ready to learn to drive. Psychologist Russell Barkley’s model of driving states that there are three levels of skills needed to be a safe and effective driver.

Level 1: Operational competency: This refers to the basic skills of driving such as braking, scanning for hazards, motor coordination and reaction time.
Level 2: Tactical competency: This refers to the skills needed to make decisions about driving a vehicle in traffic such as yielding, regulating speed and deciding when to pass a vehicle.
Level 3: Strategic competency: This refers to the skills needed to make decisions about making a trip and using the car, such as deciding on the best time of day for a trip, whether it’s okay to drive in a light snowstorm, or whether one is too sleepy to drive.

If your teen driver is impaired in any of these levels of competency they might be at risk for unsafe driving behaviors, in which case you may want to delay handing over the keys. This includes anyone with significant inattentiveness, impulsivity, emotional regulation difficulties, atypical observational skills, decreased self-awareness, etc. Knowing what skills they need to accomplish before receiving their driver’s license will be important before handing over the keys.

How involved should a parent be?

State Farm and The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) have gathered information on teen statics and driving behavior research in a collaborative handbook. One interesting observation in this report states, “Parenting style can affect teens’ crash risk.” Teens who say their parents set rules and monitor where they are going and with whom in a helpful, supportive way are half as likely to be in a crash and 71 percent less likely to drive intoxicated than teens who describe their parents as less involved (offer little support, do not set rules or monitor).” It also states:

    1. Support alone isn’t good enough when it comes to driving safety. Teens need rules and follow-through. Teens who describe their parents as permissive do not significantly differ in crash risk or safety belt use from those teens who view their parents as uninvolved.
    2. Parents who monitor and set appropriate rules in a supportive way protect their teens. Authoritarian parents do provide a protective effect on safety. But authoritative parents have a significantly higher effect on safety.
    3. It’s about safety, not control.

Setting and enforcing rules and monitoring teens’ driving habits are most effective in reducing crash risk when teens understand that these limits are in place because their parents care about them and want them to be safe.

Ready for the road, now what?

The State Farm/CHOP suggests in their report three levels of independence:

  • Level one (0 to 6 months): Drive only during daytime.
  • Level two (6 to 12 months): Extends driving time through the evening hours.
  • Level three (12 to 18 months): Drive freely while following agreed upon rules.

Setting some rules on how to get the keys and keep them can be useful for new teen drivers especially for those who need more structure. Have your teen driver keep a log of driving experience. Entries include medication (if prescribed), destination, route/miles, contact name and phone number, starting time and ending time of drive and odometer reading. They must also follow the Everyday Rules:

  1. Take medication as prescribed.
  2. Fill out the log every trip.
  3. While driving:
  • Keep music low
  • Use preset radio stations only
  • No eating
  • No texting or mobile phone use
  • No other teens in the car
  • Absolutely NO alcohol or other intoxicants

What are the next steps for your teen driver to be independent on the road?

  1. New drivers and their parents enter into a contract that spells out their responsibilities. Teens are responsible for accepting LD/ADHD as a neurobehavioral disorder that affects driving. Directional issues, perception problems and other issues are affected by their disorder.
  2. Teens agree to abide by the driving rules, and must understand that they can move to the next level only when they succeed for six months in a row at their current level.
  3. Parents agree to driving privileges if rules are followed.
  4. Parents and teens also agree that parents have the responsibility to check the accuracy of the teen’s driving log, to find whether rules were followed and if not, to give appropriate consequences including loss of driving privileges.

Practice, practice, practice! And more practice. Having an experienced adult driver in the car to help them navigate stressful situations will be instrumental when your teen is finally on the road without an adult to instruct them. If you as the parent do not feel comfortable that your teen driver has not mastered the skill levels-Operational, Tactical and Strategic Competency-suggested by Dr. Russell Barkley do not hand over the keys and practice some more.

Learning to drive and gaining that independence can be very rewarding for your teen. So is it risky business or worth the risk? Giving them tools for success will help them be a responsible driver and will be worth the risk for most parents and teens.

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Author: Beth McGaw, M.Ed. is a parent of three boys, two of whom were taught to be successful independent teen drivers with a few mishaps along the way. Her third son has learning challenges that has delayed obtaining his drivers license, but with a little more time and instruction, he too will have that independence, leaving mom with a few more gray hairs but more independence herself. Beth is also an active member and volunteer of LDA, and currently serves on the LDA board of directors and is founder of the nonprofit online resource, Kids Enabled.