ADHD and the Adolescent Driver:

ADHD and the Adolescent Driver:

Driving is a dangerous undertaking for any adolescent. Automobile collisions account for 47% of all female and 37% of all male adolescent (16 to 19 years old) deaths in the United States.1 In 2002, the cost of police- reported crashes (both fatal and nonfatal) involving drivers aged 15 to 20 years was $40.8 billion.2These collisions are 4 times more likely to occur at night.3 In addition, they are twice as likely to take place on weekends4 and more likely to happen during the summer.3

While this is disturbing enough, driving becomes even more problematic for adolescents who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Teenage drivers with ADHD are 8 times more likely to lose their license, 4 times more likely to be involved in a collision, 3 times more likely to sustain a serious injury, and 2 to 4 times more likely to receive a moving vehicle violation.5,6 This is not surprising considering that the core symptoms of ADHD are inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity. Also, alcohol use commonly influences driving mishaps among adolescents; 24% of young drivers who died in crashes in 2002 had a blood alcohol level of 0.08% or higher.2 Given the same blood alcohol levels, persons with ADHD have been shown to be more impaired while driving than those without ADHD.7

Pharmacologic Therapy

The good news is that methylphenidate has been shown to improve the driving performance of adolescents with ADHD--both in virtual-reality driving simulators in which drivers are exposed to high-risk driving demands8 and routine on-road driving in their own vehicle.5 Ours is the only group that has published studies that compare the efficacy of different medications on driving performance in adolescents with ADHD. Preliminary study results indicate that controlled-release OROS methylphenidate taken once a day improves driving performance significantly more in the evenings than short-acting methylphenidate taken 3 times a day or long-acting mixed amphetamine salts taken once a day.8-10

In the only study that evaluated atomoxetine, the drug was found to improve self-reported driving ability but not simulated driving performance.11 Another pilot study suggests the arousal and attention demand of a manual transmission may enhance the attention of ADHD adolescent drivers and promote safer driving than automatic transmissions.12

Two other articles offer in-depth reviews.13,14

Initiating and Monitoring Therapy

Before considering treatment options, it might be useful to review the diagnosis of ADHD. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) outlines diagnostic criteria for childhood ADHD.15 We have converted these criteria to be adolescent-relevant (Table 1). To qualify for a diagnosis of ADHD, a patient must have had at least 6 symptoms in the inattentive or 6 symptoms in the impulsive/hyperactive categories in at least 2 areas of their lives (eg, school, work, home) since age 6. These behaviors must occur often, not just periodically. Adolescents may qualify for the inattentive, impulsive/hyperactive, or the combined subtype. Consider stimulant medication therapy only if the adolescent meets the criteria for one of these subtypes.

Treatment should involve a long-acting stimulant medication, which may need to be supplemented with short-acting methylphenidate if the adolescent drives more than 15 hours after ingesting OROS methylphenidate. The dosage should be increased until there is no further improvement in ADHD symptoms or unacceptable adverse side effects develop.

Clinicians typically strive to optimize the dosage of medication used to manage such chronic diseases as asthma and epilepsy. However, we sometimes adjust the dosage in patients with ADHD only until beneficial effect is detected. To evaluate whether symptoms are responding to the medication, it is not enough to rely on simple global reports, such as, "things are a lot better." It is more helpful to systematically review and record the symptoms shown in Table 1 before starting any medication, and then after each increase in medication dose. It is not unusual to find that one set of symptoms improves with a lower dose and a different cluster of symptoms improves with a higher dose. The patient, parent, and/or teacher may describe especially worrisome symptoms that also need to be monitored.


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