The Risks of a Neurotypical Driver

A road sign reading "Watch Out" with a cartoon car heading directly towards a cartoon bike heading the opposite direction

Watch Out <> By KEVIN, Licensed CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

First, I’ll start by saying this: if a person would be at a high risk of killing or injuring themselves or someone else while driving a car, they should not drive.  But note that I didn’t say “if a person would be a dangerous driver,” as that’s a slightly different statement and would bar just about every teenager from driving.

Second, I’ll state that this post is US-centric.  I know other countries have different rules for getting driver’s credentials.  I don’t know what those rules are, nor do I know if they are better or worse than the USA’s.  So you’re warned.

There’s a lot of autistic people old enough to have driving credentials, but who haven’t obtained them.  I’ve seen a lot of reasons, with the most common being:

  • They feel they would be a danger while driving a car
  • Their parents feel they would be a danger while driving a car
  • They have no desire whatsoever to drive a car

I’d add I think there’s a forth reason: Learned helplessness.  And also a fifth reason: different expectations for autistic people than neurotypicals.

Certainly some people shouldn’t drive.  Including some autistic people.  I agree 100% here.  And if someone tells me they would be a danger while driving, I’ll take their word for it and not try to convince them otherwise.

But I’d like to look at the forth and fifth reasons.  First, let’s look at what I mean by learned helplessness.  I know that’s a triggering phrase and that it has a lot of pop psychology meanings.  I ask readers to put those aside and allow me to explain what I’m meaning by that.

Many of today’s young adults had the fortune – or misfortune – of having an autism diagnosis from an early age, accompanied by IEPs, special education, therapies, specialists, etc.  Through all this special labeling and treatment, it’s easy for one thing to be made clear to an autistic person: you’re different, and the normal way of doing things won’t work for you.  It’s also easy to make it clear that the experts know all about your autism, so you should listen to them.  While I agree early diagnosis and appropriate services are good, I think it’s easy to teach you’re not as capable as others.  It’s easy to teach the person that they don’t have social skills, don’t have the ability to plan things, have motor skill issues, have sensory issues, and can’t concentrate.  And from there it is easy to guess that these same difficulties would manifest in certain ways while driving.  Of course this isn’t 100% true – shouldn’t these same difficulties make something like climbing a tree difficult?  Yet I know tons of autistics that were frequent climbers (to their parents’ horror) at early ages.  I think the difference is nobody told them their autism would make tree climbing hard.  Many individuals are used to being told what will be difficult for them, so why would driving be different?  Why would they disagree, even if it wasn’t true?

That’s how we get to the fifth reason: different expectations for autistic people and than neurotypicals.  What’s the expectation (in the USA) for a 16 year old getting a drivers’ license (or whatever age is legal where you are), other than demonstrated competence (to some degree) behind the wheel?  If the child is neurotypical, the expectation seems to most often be two-fold: “Get good grades” and “be born long enough ago.”  If the neurotypical meets these two criteria, they can begin to gain the skills to demonstrate competence as a driver.

But…are these neurotypicals always good, safe drivers on day one of drivers’ education?  Of course not.  They accidentally run red lights, they drive the wrong speed, they miss cues from other vehicles, they don’t realize that that kid standing by the side of the road might run into the road.  Simply put, they have a hard time putting together the whole picture and all sensory inputs, and figuring out the social rules of driving.  At this point, people think, “Oh, autistic people have trouble with big picture thinking, sensory inputs, and figuring out social stuff.  So they’ll do even worse.”

There’s a few problems with this logic, however.  The first problem is that research doesn’t seem to bear this out!  This article cites some research that shows 12% of teenage autistic drivers with autism have received a ticket, compared to 31% of teens in general.  It also shows autistic drivers are less likely to have wrecked – 12% of autistic drivers vs. 21% of teen drivers.  It’s not a stretch to say that the autistic teens may be twice as safe as non-autistics.  That said, I haven’t read the study itself (no academic affiliation right now), and it does sound like the study had a small sample size and may have some selection bias.  But, regardless, I couldn’t find one link from Google about an autistic driver to causing a fatal accident (I did find some very young autistics who aren’t old enough to be a license but who did cause property accidents).  I did note I found many about autistic people (typically pedestrians) being victims in accidents, however.  In fact, in addition to those with a high “functioning level” (roughly meaning being in a typical school classroom and planning on going to college), two other things stand out as being associated with whether or not an autistic person has a license as a teenager: the experience of their parents in teaching teenagers to drive (the more experience, the more likely the autistic is to drive) and the presence of driving skills in a student’s IEP.  Imagine that: if you teach a person to drive, they are more likely to become a licensed driver!

Heck, Fehr in Das automanische Heimweh: Thesen zum Autozeitalter, stated that cars essentially turn drivers into autistic people, relating to how they isolate themselves from others while driving.  So it’s okay for neurotypicals to drive, even if they  become autistic while driving (according to Fehr!), but not okay for an autistic to do something associated with neurotypicals.  Interesting indeed.

Regardless of Fehr’s statements (which I don’t agree with), I do believe that autistics are held to a different standard.  When mom or dad puts their neurotypical teen into the driver’s seat for training, they don’t expect the teen to be a good driver.  But they do expect him to be able to learn.  So when he blows through a stop sign, slams down hard on the brake, and nearly runs over the curb, it’s attributed to lack of training.  When an autistic kid does the same thing, it’s proof of lack of aptitude.  Thus, the expectation for the autistic kid – too often – is “Show that you are a ‘safe’ driver and we’ll teach you to drive.”  How can that happen without training?

Of course there are variations in abilities.  Some autistic people really will not ever be able to competently drive a car.  Of course some neurotypicals fit in this category too.  And some autistics could earn a living from driving, whether it’s a taxi, 18-wheeler, or race car.  Everyone should be evaluated individually, but the standard shouldn’t be “can they drive ‘safely’.”  It should be: With training, could this person become a competent driver?  That’s a different question entirely.

It’s different due to the definition of “safe driver.”  What’s a safe driver?  It turns out that many accidents have little to do with skill of operating vehicle controls.  What causes fatal accidents?  The NHTSA has a bunch to say, using their 2009 statistics:

  • 38% nationally involved at least one driver with a BAC > .01%.  Clearly drinking and driving is bad (32% of accidents involved at least one driver with a BAC > .08%).
  • 31% of fatal accidents involved speeding
  • 54% of fatalities were not wearing seatbelts (note that > 50% of people wear seatbelts, so non-seatbelt use is significant in fatal accidents)
  • 16% of fatal accidents involved distractions (such as cell phones or food)
  • Early morning driving is particularly deadly (2:00 AM – 2:59 AM has 3x the number of fatal accidents as 7:00 AM – 7:59 AM; note this is absolute number, not percentage compared to number of miles driven or cars on the road at those times)

Of course operator skill and ability reduces accidents as well as not driving drunk, not speeding, and avoiding distractions.  That’s why everyone driving should get good driver’s education.  But autistics may be at an edge, particularly if we follow the law.  Everything in the above list, except early morning driving, is illegal.

I’ll also throw out my experience.  I’ve been a licensed motorcyclist for the last 5 years, and got my automotive license at age 16.  I’ve driven cars, driven trucks, riden motorcycles, riden ATVs, ridden scooters, driven RVs, pulled trailers, flown planes, piloted boats since a young age.  I’ve also done some flight education (dropped that due to money, not ability as I had no problem managing tasks such as maintaining altitude, speed, fuel mixture, engine RPM, and compas direction).  My wife (also autistic) was licensed at 16 for cars and is motorcycle license.  She’s driven just about everything with two or more wheels on it since she was a young teen, including scooters, motorcycles, early automobiles, tractors, and plenty of others.  We both have driven sticks, including vehicles that required double clutching or other complex actions (such as manually advancing the timing).  Neither one of us has had a serious accident, and we’ve only got a handful of tickets (speeding!) between us.

I took to driving very quickly, as did my wife.  I’m pretty sure either of us could drive almost any vehicle out there.  Some things took me a bit to learn (loading a boat onto a trailer in 40 MPH cross-winds is difficult.  For anyone).  But I learned.  I was given the chance to learn.  (edit: I’ll also add that both of us believe driving is much easier than things like walking, as far as motor skill requirements; the car does what I want, my legs don’t always)

If you can’t drive, that’s fine, please don’t.  But I encourage people to not immediately dismiss the idea of an autistic driver.

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4 Responses to The Risks of a Neurotypical Driver

  1. So um, I got linked here by a friend (to your “don’t be that guy” post, which is *fantastic*, by the way :)), and don’t usually leave comments until I’ve read an entire archive. But alas, I just wanted to comment here. I, too, found driving to be not that terrifying, and think that being autistic actually helped me – the obsession with rules and making sure I follow every single one of them has led me to be an extremely safe driver – I’ve been in exactly one very minor accident – I got rear-ended by someone coming off of a highway exit, but it didn’t even dent the car, just scared me half to death, and I’ve never gotten a ticket. My parents both thought I wouldn’t be able to learn, but I proved them wrong. It did take me 9 months to get my license, as opposed to the standard 6, but I only had to take my test once, and really, I don’t care how long it took. 🙂 So I think you’re on to something – it’s not “this person is autistic and therefore can’t learn to drive”. It’s “this person has (or does not have) the skills to learn to drive if they are given the opportunity.”

    Also, that study – is it just that autistics self-select more, so a much higher percentage of autistics who would otherwise be getting into accidents/tickets choose not to drive? So on the whole, we might be closer to the NT percentage, if everyone was forced to drive? It is, as you’ve touched on, basically imperative for all NT teens to at least try to learn to drive in the US, but if more of them self-selected out, perhaps there would be fewer accidents? (Of course, many of the young-person accidents wouldn’t be solved this way…) Of course, I’d prefer keeping the conclusions to “Autistics are less dangerous drivers”. 😛

    Thanks for such an awesome blog! Now off to read more posts…

    • Lindsay says:

      Yeah, I definitely agree that the proportion of autistic teenagers who drive is *way* smaller than the proportion of non-autistic teenagers who drive, and has been self-selected for aptitude.

  2. Billy Cresp says:

    Evidence showing autistic drivers being in some ways safer drivers than NT ones, doesn’t mean such a difference is true in comparing both groups as a whole. Autistic drivers are a small percentage of the spectrum. And we must admit that many autistics actually lack the abilities necessary to drive correctly. It could be possible for the small group of autistic drivers to have proclivities and aptitudes relevant to driving, that make them better at it than the average NT. But there is variation in ability in things for both NTs and autistics.

  3. Lindsay says:

    I think you make an important point about learned helplessness, but I’m also really, really sure that I am one of the autistic nondrivers who is legitimately unable to drive under normal conditions in the place I live.

    (If I lived way out in the sticks, where I could go slowly and not have to pay attention to other drivers, I might well be able to do so!)

    I have tried, repeatedly, to practice driving enough to take the test and get a license, and stalled out every time. It’s just too hard, and too nerve-wracking.

    (I know you’ve said that you don’t doubt anyone’s self-assessment of their own competence; I just thought I’d emphasize that some of us have tried to learn, and found that we couldn’t. My assessment of myself is not based in abstract principles, it is derived from experience.)