Center for Injury Research and Prevention

Mental Health Factors and Teen Driving Behaviors

March 28, 2018

When we think about teen drivers and their crash risks, we typically talk about issues like cell phones, peer passengers and strategies to help make the learning to drive process more effective. As a nurse who has worked in hospitals and schools, one area that I am really interested in is understanding how health status may be related to teen driving behaviors. Our Teen Driving Safety Research team at the University of Pennsylvania and Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) recently examined how mental health symptoms related to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), conduct disorder, and depression affect teen driving behaviors. Our findings were recently published in Nursing Research.

We enrolled 60 newly licensed teens in our study—all from Pennsylvania and having their license for less than 90 days. Because we wanted to get varying levels of symptom reporting, we recruited all teens, not just those diagnosed with mental health problems. Teens completed a series of questionnaires about themselves and their mental health and also provided information about their driving behaviors on the road. In addition, parents filled out questionnaires about their teens’ mental health. The teens then completed the Simulated Driving Assessment in the driving simulator at CHOP, which provides a safe way to assess novice teen drivers' skill levels in actual crash scenarios.

The results of our analysis provided some really interesting information about teens and their driving:

  • Inattention was associated with more driving errors in the simulator, which include driving too fast, inadequate scanning and hazard detection, and following vehicles too closely.
  • Self-reported symptoms of hyperactivity and conduct disorder were related to more self-reported risky driving behaviors, which can include factors such as speeding, nighttime driving, and cell phone use while driving.
  • Parent reports of their teens’ mental health were not associated with any of the teens’ driving behaviors, neither those reported on the questionnaire nor in the simulator.

An Opportunity to Reduce Crash Risk

These findings may help explain some of the factors related to crash risk in the first year of driving. Engaging in risky driving behaviors may stem from inherent problems with self-control for those with hyperactivity or impulsivity. For those with conduct disorder, rule violations may be an attempt to take advantage of a situation or to express hostility.

We plan to further examine how mental health symptoms affect driving behavior, particularly among teens with higher rates and severity of ADHD or other mental health problems. Our goal is to help move the research toward its ultimate goal: tailoring interventions for novice teen drivers with mental health problems to reduce their crash risk.

Read the study abstract.

Learn more about teen crash risk and prevention.

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