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Impaired Driving: 5 Under-Discussed Causes — an article on the Smart Living Network
April 29, 2012 at 10:23 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

Impaired Driving: 5 Under-Discussed Causes


As a driver, doctor, and citizen, I have seen two major “impaired driver” awareness efforts.

When I first got behind the wheel in the 1980’s, drunk driving (DD) hit the spotlight.Tragic stories and billboards by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) were hard to miss.These ads are still around today, however, an “impairment” that could not have been imagined in the 1980’s has now taken center stage - cell phone use and texting while driving.Like DD, this electronic distraction has been the target of billboards, YouTube clips, and other media in an attempt to raise awareness and, ultimately, to help save lives. 

As a doctor, I applaud these efforts, however, I encounter a few other impairments that I would like to address in this blog!

#1. Dementia

The disease begins to gain prevalence in the 60’s until, by age 80, one in three people will have dementia on some level.

Dementia involves impaired memory, most notably short-term memory. A person with dementia may easily lose their way and become confused or they may have difficulty with signage.Both of these problems impair attention and driving skills. However, while the elderly are often a target of discrimination with driving, I want to be clear that dementia is a clinical impairment.

If I diagnose a patient with dementia, driving becomes a topic of discussion for their safety and the safety of others. Occasionally, I am asked to intervene by concerned family members.This prompts testing for dementia. If answers are not readily apparent, I defer to the local Secretary of State office, requesting a driving evaluation.

For more info on memory and dementia, see my past blog:

#2. Seizures

The issue of seizures is obviously more clear-cut. If a person has a seizure, they are, by law, unable to drive until they have a seizure-free period of six months. From there, it's important to ensure that the disease is controlled and medication (if required) is taken regularly.

#3. Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is more common than most people realize! People with the condition go through periods where their breathing stops and oxygen levels in their blood go down. It keeps people from getting quality, restorative sleep and cane leave them exhausted throughout the day.

Sadly, many people with sleep apnea go undiagnosed and falling asleep at the wheel is one way the disorder finally comes to light. Fortunately, sleep apnea awareness is growing. It is now suspect when risk factors exist. These include:

  • Sleepiness
  • Excessive snoring
  • Obesity
  • Neck circumference greater than 17 inches
  • Small chin
  • Difficult-to-treat high blood pressure

Consideration is underway to possibly screen professional drivers and truckers with any risks before licensure with the Department of Transportation (DOT). 

#4. Medication/Drugs

Any substance in the body can change the function of the body. It seem obvious to most that illicit drugs like marijuana or narcotics can impair reaction time and decision-making and that stimulants like cocaine or speed can increase impulsiveness. (In my home state, the zero tolerance policy for mind-altering drug consumption and driving was reaffirmed in a case involving medical marijuana.) Less obvious, however, are some prescription or over-the-counter drugs. 

Impairment can be seen with:

  • Muscle relaxers
  • Nausea medication
  • Anxiety medications
  • Sleep aids
  • Antihistamines

For this reason, it's vital that you learn about any medication before you take it. “Don’t operate heavy machinery” warnings most certainly include driving a car!

#5. Attention Deficiency Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

As awareness increases regarding ADHD, the scope of the disorder is also becoming more apparent. Beyond school performance and a disorganized environment, other life skills such as driving can be significantly affected. For example, distractibility and impulse control issues can be deadly when a car traveling at high speeds is involved.

Considering a stereo, passengers, and roadside distractions, ADHD can fuel the fire of driving risk. Studies have shown that properly treated ADHD decreases risk of accident and traffic violation.

The take-home message here is that ADHD permeates more than school function. Safety factors should also be considered. This involves reducing distracting stimuli and seeking proper treatment. 

In Conclusion

While alcohol and texting are certainly serious impairments to driving, others exist. It is important to consider the impact your health condition may have on your driving abilities and to act proactively. If your own safety isn't a good enough reason, think about the people around you. A car in the hands of an impaired drivers can be a truly deadly weapon.

Photo Credit: justmakeit

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