"A spaghetti mess of hundreds of thoughts and worries all at the same time" is how Jen describes her internal monologue. She has ADHD—a condition she shares with approximately 3-4% of adults in the UK. But, like many people, she went through most of her life unaware that she was neurodiverse. Since her diagnosis at the age of 42 lots of things, including her experience of driving, now make a lot more sense.
According to the NHS, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) affects people’s behaviour, and typically presents through:
I spoke to several people with the condition to get an idea of their relationships with driving.
While ADHD itself is clearly defined, those who live with it are distinctly individual. That means their experiences of driving can vary significantly.
Erica has combined type ADHD, meaning she experiences symptoms of both inattentiveness and hyperactivity. She flits between tasks and struggles with motivation. On the roads, she finds herself easily distracted, and often notices that her brain is overstimulated because there are so many things going on. She has to take appropriate measures to remove distractions so that she can concentrate on her driving.
Jen also has difficulty focussing; the ‘din’ in her head can be deafening during day-to-day life. But her experience of driving is very different. “I’m often in my most calm and logical state when driving”, she says. “I think it’s because so many different parts of my brain are stimulated, it frees up space in my mind usually occupied by panic or anxiety.” She even finds herself more able to hold tricky conversations once she’s behind the wheel.
This might be down to the internal energy she’s able to exert in the car. When forced to sit still and quietly, that energy within someone with hyperactivity symptoms can build and build. Venting it through self-stimulating behaviours—or ‘stimming’—can help increase concentration. Stimming can take different forms, but usually involves repeating certain sounds or movements, such as fiddling with a pen or jiggling one’s leg.
Driving provides an organic outlet for restless energy: steering, for instance, keeps your hands fully occupied. This alone can improve focus on the road ahead.
That’s not to say drivers with ADHD always have an easy time. The NHS warns that impulsivity can lead to reckless driving, such as undertaking risky lane changes, or going faster than the speed limit. One man I spoke to received two speeding tickets within half an hour of passing his practical test.
And for a minority, like Samantha, driving might not be on the cards at all. Her ADHD severely affects her ability to multitask, and leads her to panic easily. “I get flustered over the smallest mistakes”, she tells me, which is something new drivers have to deal with a lot. It’s not uncommon for learners to stall at junctions or get in the wrong lane at roundabouts. How you deal with blunders is part and parcel of becoming a competent driver.
On the other hand, the very strategies people with ADHD employ in everyday life can be useful for outings in a car. They are used to making decisions based on a lot of, often incomplete, information: those with the condition often excel in a crisis. Some may even pick up on changes to their surroundings, such as upcoming hazards, quicker than average.
Nothing about our highways system is accidental: the design and layout of roads deliberately limits distractions. Key information is explained in very simple, clear graphics on road signs; there are strict rules regarding advertising, especially on busy or high-speed routes. This helps all drivers, but can be essential to those who find concentration a major challenge.
Some medical conditions are notifiable, meaning you have a duty to tell the DVLA about them. You could be fined up to £1000 if you’re in an accident and found to have withheld relevant medical information.
But you do not need to tell the DVLA if you have ADHD, unless you think it—or the medication you’re on—will affect your ability to drive safely. The best thing to do is to talk to your doctor, who can advise you further.
If you do need to notify the DVLA and you’re applying for your provisional, there’s space to report your ADHD on the form. You can provide further details to speed up the application process.
If you already hold a driving licence, you only need to tell the DVLA if:
Again, talk to your doctor about the implications of your symptoms on driving, and, where necessary, let the DVLA know by filling in an A1 form.
Everyone who wishes to be granted a UK driving licence must first prove their background theory knowledge.
Both Jen and Erica struggled with their theory tests more than their practicals; Erica failed 5 times before hitting the all-important pass mark. But with no formal statistics of theory pass rates for people with ADHD, it’s not definitively clear if this is a wider concern.
Anecdotally, however, people with ADHD report struggling with the boredom of revision, failing to prioritise it over other activities, and having a tendency to rush their answers during the test. There are no easy solutions, but some strategies—useful for lots of learners—might make all the difference to those with the condition.
The theory test won’t be your first exam, so you might already have a good idea of how you study best. Think about what works for you at school, uni or work. Or, alternatively, consider what hasn’t set you up for success in the past.
Adapt your study style—whether that’s through reading, note-taking, listening, pacing, talking out loud, or teaching someone else the material—to the methods that suit you.
There are 14 distinct topics covered in the test, including attitude, safety and rules of the road. Work through them one at a time, keep study sessions short and allow yourself regular breaks. ADHD can make organisation challenging, so use lists, post-its or colour-coloured schedules to keep things interesting.
Revising with a friend can help you stay on track. But if you don't have someone who you can buddy up with for the theory test, there are options available online too. Focusmate is a virtual coworking platform that's free for up to three sessions a week. Alternatively, ADHD UK offers daily accountability sessions you can join to 'get stuff done'.
Examination conditions aren’t reflective of real life; they induce extra levels of stress, and can feel designed to trip you up. Get to know the format, take lots of mock tests, and make sure you’re at a point where you’re consistently hitting the pass mark. That way, you can compensate for any extra nerves you feel on the day.
Think about whether you function better in the morning or afternoon. Although you may be restricted by availability, consider booking your test for a time where your symptoms are most manageable.
Learning to drive can be tricky for lots of people, but those with ADHD face particular challenges. Erica, Jen and others shared some ideas that could help.
Most people I interviewed were keen for driving instructors to have an awareness of their condition, remain extra patient and understand that ADHD may cause them to “process and understand things differently”. But while some pupils may wish to give their instructor a heads up, you never have to disclose your ADHD if you don’t want to.
Whatever you decide, letting your instructor know about things you find helpful or unhelpful can help you learn more effectively. Are there times you need complete silence? Could you do with clearer directions? A good instructor should be receptive to your feedback and be willing to adapt their teaching accordingly.
As clichéd as it sounds, practice makes perfect. That’s true of all learner drivers, but could be especially critical to those who are neurodiverse. Jen recommends repeating a skill “over and over and over again” until you’ve refined it. And, once Erica learnt how to parallel park, she never forgot it. It’s a skill she’s proud of to this day.
Verbalising your thought process could be valuable for both you and your instructor. Jen speaks aloud in the car, finding that the “audible hazard perception” aids her focus. And, crucially, it also gives others insight into her concerns.
Intensive lessons don’t suit everybody, and long stints of driving require high levels of attentiveness over a sustained period of time. Erica finds that her eyes get tired from focusing on the road—and this is an issue I hear echoed a lot.
There are plenty of other options that allow you to build up your experience little and often; our instructors always work with you to create a schedule you’re happy with.
Once you’ve passed your practical test, there are still plenty of strategies you can employ to try to maintain focus in the car.
You may have impulsive tendencies, but so long as you have an awareness of them, you can mitigate associated risks. Technology can supplement your own cognisance. For example, for those who feel the need for speed, it’s worth looking into a sat nav that can alert you when you’re going too fast.
Distracted driving factors into many road accidents. If you have ADHD, it’s particularly important to limit the number of other distractions available to you. Avoid eating, drinking and even talking hands-free on your mobile.
There may be times when you need total quiet — so turn down the music and let your travelling companions know to keep shtum.
For some, though, low-level background noise can be beneficial. Jen finds classical music, white noise, or even radio talk shows help: they “calm my busy mind and block out my internal monologue.”
You can find lots of different ADHD focus playlists on YouTube and Spotify, with options for white noise, brown noise and prink noise, depending on your frequency preference.
Split up long and boring journeys, such as motorway driving, into smaller blocks. Try to plan breaks into your journey time and pull over as soon as you feel your concentration wavering.
Sat navs can be both a blessing and curse—and that’s without taking into account additional factors such as ADHD. Erica isn’t a fan (“In 40 yards, take the seventh left onto the M498b — what does this even mean?!”) and prefers clear instructions based on landmarks. Or, better yet, “turn right in five…four…three…two…one… here”.
Jen, on the other hand, finds sat navs useful. The visual road image, speed limit reminder and details like arrival time feel like they do “some of the thinking” for her. Others recount that it can be difficult to remember to take the fourth left, particularly if you have a limited working memory—meaning you struggle to keep multiple pieces of information in your short-term memory at any one time. Having a specific road provides a “simple certainty” that other directions don’t.
Get to know the TomTom Start 52: the sat nav you’ll probably have to follow on your driving test.
With rising awareness of ADHD and the different ways in which it can manifest, there are lots of drivers out there who have the condition without knowing for sure. But waiting times for a diagnosis can be long—so should you drive in the meantime?
There are no laws preventing you from getting behind the wheel while you’re waiting for a diagnosis—and remember, many drivers with ADHD will never need to declare their condition to the DVLA at all. That said, you have a duty to do everything possible to ensure you’re safe behind the wheel.
If you’re an experienced driver, you will probably have already found strategies that are helpful. Case in point: Erica and Jen both drove safely for over 20 years without realising they had ADHD!
This is very much down to personal preference. Although many learners still like to get a manual licence, automatic cars are becoming ever more popular. Both have their pros and cons; learn more about them here.
As always, it’s best to go to the experts. Here are some websites you might find handy: