Linking Teen Driving Behaviors and Mental-Health Factors

Teenage drivers ages 16 to 19 are three times more likely to get into fatal accidents than their older counterparts. Within this age group, around 20 percent in the U.S. have been affected by symptoms associated with mental health disorders, including nine percent with a lifetime history of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Analyzing data from 60 teens who completed a simulated driving assessment and several questionnaires, Penn nursing researcher Catherine McDonald and colleagues from Penn Medicine, the Center for Injury Research and Prevention at CHOP and Utah State University linked mistakes behind the wheel to self-reported symptoms of ADHD and other mental-health disorders, findings they published in the journal Nursing Research.     

“Previous studies have shown increases in crash risk related to an ADHD diagnosis,” says Dr. McDonald, who has secondary appointments in Penn Medicine and at CIRP. “We wanted to see if our data could get at the why of what is happening around driving behaviors.”

The research team began by recruiting 16- and 17-year-olds in Pennsylvania who had had their driver’s licenses no more than 90 days. Participants rated how closely numerous statements aligned with how they felt and thought, and they completed questionnaires about depressive symptoms and their driving behaviors. Parents assessed their child for ADHD symptoms and other mental-health problems.

All participants completed an assessment in the driving simulator at CIRP. The teens were exposed to different crash scenarios—a rear-end collision or a hidden hazard, for instance—that were avoidable if they were driving safely. The researchers analyzed the data on a variety of the participants’ actions, including how they behaved at stimulated stop signs, in which lane they drove, where they looked on the road and how they applied the brake in potentially dangerous circumstances.

The researchers noticed a clear link: The more inattention symptoms a teen reported, the more mistakes that driver made in the simulator.

“Inattention was associated with more errors in the simulator, and self-reported symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder were related to more self-reported risky driving behaviors,” Dr. McDonald says. “This presents an opportunity to help intervene with patients and their families, to talk about the child’s whole health and mental well-being and how it might relate to driving behaviors.”