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Teaching Your Teen with T1 to Drive

Driving tips for parents & their teens living with type 1 diabetes

Any parent who has taught a teen to drive understands the pure terror of it all. In that passenger seat, the telephone poles and trees just seem closer to the curb. And as hard as you push down with your foot, there is no brake for you on the passenger side.

Diabetes may take learning to drive to a whole new level. Not only do drivers living with diabetes need to learn the many rules and nuances of the road in general, they need to learn how to manage it all safely – and legally – with diabetes on board. (Read more about driving with diabetes.)

But here’s the good news: Diabetes may just make you do a better job of teaching your teen to drive than you might without it. Diabetes requires that you consider every detail and go over every “what if.” New drivers living with diabetes, if taught correctly, may be among the most informed and prepared drivers on the road. (Read the American Diabetes Association Position Statement on Diabetes and Driving.)

So what do you need to drive home while educating a person with diabetes on driving? Safety, smarts and strategy. Consider these tips:

Knowing your exit plan

It’s one thing to know that when you feel low you need to pull over; it’s another to know when, where and how to do so. (Learn about the signs of low blood sugar here.) Before your teen even begins driving, start practicing “low drills.” As you drive along on all kinds of roads and in all kinds of conditions, anyone in the car can randomly say “Low drill!” Then, study and discuss where and how to pull over safely, and do it.

Learning where it is safe to pull over and what to do once there – whether on a country road or a busy highway – is an important lesson for any driver. With more of a chance of needing to pull over with diabetes on board, it’s a key drill to get down.

Checking is non-negotiable

Checking blood sugar level before getting in the car is a must. Every time a person gets behind the wheel, they have an obligation to be sure they are in safe driving condition – not just to themselves, but to the millions of others on the road. What kind of number constitutes that? This is something to discuss with your teen’s care team.

The broader question of a person’s A1C and whether or not to drive at all is another discussion for the diabetes care team. Some diabetes experts feel that an A1C should not determine whether or not a person should drive, and that instead, what a person does behind the wheel is what matters. (And hey: Some burned-out teens may start checking more because they want to drive. Bonus!)

Stocking the car with what your teen needs

Fast-acting glucose should be within easy reach. Less quickly perishable yet quick-acting carbs are the best choice. A large container of glucose tablets tucked into the driver’s side door is an excellent idea: Glucose tabs stand up well to heat and cold and are good for a long time (and raise blood sugar relatively quickly). Granola bars are another option. Some drivers bring juice boxes along, particularly on long drives. But do not leave juice in the car long-term – it goes bad too quickly. To be sure there is always glucose in the car, keep long-lasting carbs at all times and in every automobile your teen drives.

It is not a wise choice to store back-up insulin in the car. Insulin is finicky when it comes to weather. To remember everything needed, some drivers put a small Post-it® on the door of the house they exit most frequently with a “be sure to check for” list of supplies to have on hand.

Sound prompts only

This is an important one, and a new issue thanks to technology. Since more folks are driving with continuous glucose monitors (CGMs), it is important to discuss with your new driver just how to do that. We all know texting while driving is extremely dangerous – that even looking down at a text for a split second can cause a crash. The same goes for the GPSand the CGM. Drivers should use tools with sound only. With a GPS, listen for prompts for turns instead of looking down at a map. With a CGM, drivers should listen for the alarm instead of looking down to see how they are trending. Pull over to a safe spot or wait until you can safely park to look and see what is going on. It only takes one glance downward to change a life in the wrong way forever.

It’s all in the contract

It’s a good idea to put this all down on paper and have your driver – and you – sign it. That way there are no gray areas as to what is expected and what the consequences may be if the driver does not stick to that contract. A sample contract can be found here.

The laws for driving with diabetes vary from state to state and can be found here.

In the end, focusing on diabetes and driving may just make your budding driver a better one. And, mom or dad? The trees really are not as close as they feel over there.

Moira McCarthy is an acclaimed writer, book author, and public speaker who has shared her story – and lessons – on raising a child living with type 1 diabetes in the media, through books, and on her popular blog, despitediabetes.com. McCarthy has appeared on CNN LiveGood Morning America and Fox News. She was recently recognized as the JDRF International Volunteer of the Year. Her six books include the top-selling The Everything Parent’s Guide to Children With Juvenile Diabetes and her latest Raising Teens With Diabetes: A Survival Guide For ParentsMcCarthy is a paid contributor for The DX. All opinions contained in this article reflect those of the contributor, and not of Sanofi US, its employees, agencies or affiliates.

© 2014 The DX: The Diabetes Experience

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