Migraines & Driving Don't Mix

Megan Oltman Community Member September 01, 2009
  • Steering WheelMigraines and driving don't mix. Unless you’re brand new to Migraine disease, this is not news to you. Who among us hasn't had to plan around getting a ride, or plan when to take our medication based on whether we could get a ride? There are all kinds of reasons not to drive with a Migraine. 

    • If the pain is bad enough, most of us can barely move around, let alone drive.

    If it’s not so bad and we feel capable of driving, we still have to consider that the pain and nausea may be distracting us.

    • Pain aside, we may have cognitive difficulties in prodrome, headache phase, and postdrome which can impair our judgment when driving. Our mental processing is slowed.

    • During aura our vision may be impaired.

    • Heightened light and sound sensitivity may not only make driving unpleasant, they may also interfere with the perceptions we need to drive well and safely.

    Then there are the medications. Many medications used to treat Migraine have a listed warning about driving or operating heavy machinery. These include some abortive medications, pain medications, and even some medications used as preventives. The Captain of the cargo ship that hit the Oakland Bay Bridge in November 2007, causing a $70,000,000 oil spill with massive environmental damage, had the migraine abortive Imitrex and the pain killer Darvon in his system at the time. Even though he pled guilty to two environmental crimes, and the issue of whether he was operating the ship while impaired has not been adjudicated, it’s still a cautionary tale for all of us.

     

    What does the law say about this? There are several different aspects to consider: What if our driving is impaired by Migraine medications? What if we drive with a Migraine and cause an accident? Can our drivers’ licenses be restricted due to Migraines?  I will deal with the first two this week and talk about drivers licenses in another sharepost next week.

     

    Driving Impaired by Migraine Medications: The medication issue is the clearest. If the medication carries a warning against operating machinery or driving, and you drove with it and caused an accident, or you drove erratically and were stopped, you can be charged with DWI. The laws will vary somewhat from one jurisdiction to another. In general, however, when you take medication knowingly and voluntarily, and the medication carries a warning that it might impair your driving, you will be responsible for the consequences, including criminal liability.

     

    It’s the knowing use of a drug that can impair you that gives rise to liability. For instance in the case of Pennsylvania Department of Transportation v. Moss, a license suspension was upheld on appeal where Ms. Moss had driven herself home from the Emergency room after receiving a shot of Demerol and other drugs which then caused her to weave in and out of traffic. The court held that even though the drugs were administered in an Emergency room in response to a medical need, she had still taken them voluntarily. More importantly, she knew the effects of the Demerol and chose to drive.

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    In contrast in another case involving Demerol, State of Florida v. May, a clinic doctor did not tell Ms. May he was giving her Demerol for her Migraine, or that it would impair her ability to drive, because he mistakenly believed she had someone to drive her home. He just told her he was giving her a shot of “something strong for the pain.” She drove home under the influence of the Demerol and hit another car, killing the driver. Ms. May was convicted of DUI manslaughter, even though it was not entirely clear whether she knew what she had been given.

     

    Bottom line – don’t use meds & drive! You can learn how long a drug is likely to impair you, and wait for it to wear off, or get a ride.

     

    What if we drive with a Migraine? I did not find much law on this point. I read an article referring to a case in Britain where a man hit a pedestrian while suffering from a Migraine attack. His conviction for driving while impaired was reversed on appeal because he was not drunk or using a substance that impaired him – the impairment from the Migraine was beyond his control. In a similar vein in an Oregon case a woman sued and accepted a cash settlement from a police department following a DWI arrest, where she had not been under the influence but had been driving with a Migraine.

     

    Clearly, if we are driving, and we begin to experience symptoms of a Migraine, we should pull over if at all possible. I have had this experience at times and places where I cannot pull over – where road or traffic conditions are such that it’s impossible. In such a case we need to drive slowly and carefully in the right lane until we can pull over. The fact that we may not be held liable if we get into an accident is not what’s going to motivate us – staying safe, and keeping everyone around us safe as well, has to be our primary concern.

     

    In criminal law, legal liability is mainly determined by what is known as mens rea, or "guilty mind" – whether we are knowingly, willingly taking an action that can or will have a criminal consequence. Knowingly taking the risk of driving with a drug in our systems that might impair us would fall into this category. The fact that Migraines are beyond our control, and that they don’t consistently impair us, makes driving with a mild Migraine less clear-cut. I would not be surprised, however, to someday see cases finding liability for knowingly driving with a Migraine.

     

    The primary way the law seeks to deal with the issue of driving with any medical condition, Migraine included, is to monitor, restrict, and sometimes suspend drivers licenses. We recently had a member of this site tell us that her state Motor Vehicles Department was considering suspending her license after she revealed voluntarily that she had Migraines. In researching the issue, I found this is not as unusual as it may seem.  Next week I will be discussing Motor Vehicle regulations relating to Migraines.

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    ~ To the extent this sharepost contains legal information, it is legal education, not legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is created. ~


    © Megan Oltman, 2009
    Last updated August 30, 2009.

14 Comments
  • Sherry
    Sep. 27, 2009

    I always worry about the chance of being charged with DWI if I am in an accident, because the medicine stays in your system for a while. So, I wonder if they can tell how long ago you took it. I try not to take many meds if I have to drive and would NEVER even try to drive home from the ER, but I do take meds frequently. I have had a lot today. I just asked...

    RHMLucky777

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    I always worry about the chance of being charged with DWI if I am in an accident, because the medicine stays in your system for a while. So, I wonder if they can tell how long ago you took it. I try not to take many meds if I have to drive and would NEVER even try to drive home from the ER, but I do take meds frequently. I have had a lot today. I just asked DH if he thought after taking narcotic pain meds tonight, then driving tomorrow morning, after they had worn off, but are still in my system, and I got into an accident, did he think I would be charged, he thinks yes. Which is unfair. After sleeping them off, they would no longer be effecting me, but still in my system, what do you guys think? I  am in GA, and they are DWI hungry, especially in the county I live in. I really do not drive that much anymore since my migraines have transformed. I may drive to town once a week, which is just a few miles, to shop for groceries, or get my meds, but do not drive long distances very often. My mom usually is on call on days I have to go to the DR, which is a 45 minute drive. And either her or DH take me to the ER on the rare occasion I have to go. I have had to pull over and have DH come get me, but not often. It's just one more thing for him to have to do for me, and I still have not learned not to feel guilty for all he does and all I DO NOT do because of this stupid disease.

  • Lynne
    Sep. 22, 2009

    I absolutely agree with Megan. I had some "close calls" before I realised not just the meds, but the migraine aura's and migraines themselves were enough to impair my judgement and skills. I am frightened for some friends and relatives who do not suscribe to this, and think they are clinging to their independence by driving anyway.  I am going...

    RHMLucky777

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    I absolutely agree with Megan. I had some "close calls" before I realised not just the meds, but the migraine aura's and migraines themselves were enough to impair my judgement and skills. I am frightened for some friends and relatives who do not suscribe to this, and think they are clinging to their independence by driving anyway.  I am going to forward your articles to them. Thank you!

    • Megan Oltman
      Sep. 22, 2009

      Thanks, Lynne. I realize it's not just an inconvenience - it can be a big problem for us. Just yesterday I had to face whether I was recovered enough from a Migraine to drive myself to work, whether to call in sick, whether to ask my husband to rearrange his day to drive me. Luckily he could arrange his work and his day around driving me, without much of a...

      RHMLucky777

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      Thanks, Lynne. I realize it's not just an inconvenience - it can be a big problem for us. Just yesterday I had to face whether I was recovered enough from a Migraine to drive myself to work, whether to call in sick, whether to ask my husband to rearrange his day to drive me. Luckily he could arrange his work and his day around driving me, without much of a problem. But we do have tough choices to make. For me, I know that the 6 minutes on an interstate I have on my route are much too dangerous for me to try unless I'm feeling quite well!

  • Leeloo
    Sep. 08, 2009

    Thanks for the article, Megan.

     

    I do have backup drivers when I need them.  Fortunately I do not work very far away and it's in a straight shot down the road.  My only problem is, I have tended to run red lights without even noticing them during an attack.

     

    I'm super paranoid while driving anymore, so I tend to stay more alert...I try...

    RHMLucky777

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    Thanks for the article, Megan.

     

    I do have backup drivers when I need them.  Fortunately I do not work very far away and it's in a straight shot down the road.  My only problem is, I have tended to run red lights without even noticing them during an attack.

     

    I'm super paranoid while driving anymore, so I tend to stay more alert...I try to take my meds around my work schedule and if it's terrible I won't even go in anymore.  I only drive to work or to my mom's when I am feeling OK.  I'd have to say I never was a great driver, but my ability has really tanked over the past few years.  I'm considering going for disability tags.

     

    My lastest adventure involved driving over a sidewalk at a local gas station.  Who knew a little Civic could get up and over that concrete barrier?  Well, now I do.  I am lucky no one was out and about at that moment.  Thank God.  And people wonder why I don't leave my house!

     

    I just ordered bumper stickers from Teri's shop, so at least people will have a warning.  I already have a bumper sticker that says "I have no idea where I am going," but maybe people will stay away.

     

    So, it is very dangerous to drive whether with a migraine or on meds...I'd mention also that all medications you take with you need to be kept in their original bottles, just in case you are pulled over the police will know they are your medications and not illegal.  It may differ from state to state but here in Mo we can't even put aspirin in a bottle that isn't labeled "aspirin".  A small precaution, but a worthwhile one.

  • Chris Z
    Sep. 04, 2009
    This is so true. I tried my best to go home "before" taking my abortive meds when I was taking the Triptans. That was primarily because of the side effects. There were a handful of times when I did have to, and it was not a wise thing to do. I was fortunate that nothing happened, but I did notice that my reaction times were significantly slowed and there were...
    RHMLucky777
    Read More
    This is so true. I tried my best to go home "before" taking my abortive meds when I was taking the Triptans. That was primarily because of the side effects. There were a handful of times when I did have to, and it was not a wise thing to do. I was fortunate that nothing happened, but I did notice that my reaction times were significantly slowed and there were some close calls. My last visit to the ER in July where I was treated for Migraine I was given Compazine & Benadryl. Although I was seeing double, I was discharged with no instruction/restriction on how I was to get home or to my car. It was still at work a few blocks away. I actually started to walk to the car, but soon discovered it was not the safe thing to do. I managed to stumble back into the ER waiting room. I called a friend who picked me up and several hours later we went back to pick the car up. He followed me home.
    • Anonymous
      gg
      Sep. 05, 2009

      Me too!!  I try to wait until I get home; however, some times it is very difficult.  The hardest part is trying to get home.  If I am at work it is a 45 minute drive and usually stuck in traffic. I don't like to "put" people out and well, taxi costs, forget that.  So, unfortunately, I do have to drive home.  But then I get people at...

      RHMLucky777

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      Me too!!  I try to wait until I get home; however, some times it is very difficult.  The hardest part is trying to get home.  If I am at work it is a 45 minute drive and usually stuck in traffic. I don't like to "put" people out and well, taxi costs, forget that.  So, unfortunately, I do have to drive home.  But then I get people at work saying...Why don't you bring your pills to work and take them????  Maybe I should send them this website Laughing

       

      Thanks for all the information....gg

  • trble57
    Sep. 03, 2009

    Hi,

    Your articale on medication and migranes just through me, I had no idea we would be judged as being under the influence. It does make since, though, but  I have to wonder about the people who take anti-depressents for migranes and for depression. My question is, what about all of the people out there that are taking these prescriptions...

    RHMLucky777

    Read More

    Hi,

    Your articale on medication and migranes just through me, I had no idea we would be judged as being under the influence. It does make since, though, but  I have to wonder about the people who take anti-depressents for migranes and for depression. My question is, what about all of the people out there that are taking these prescriptions for depression? Are they to be judged as well as us? 

     

    Just me,

    making a statement,

    with lots of love to all,

    Nanc

    9/03/09

    • Megan Oltman
      Sep. 03, 2009

      Nanc - I guess it could be startling to realize, but any medication, for any condition, that impairs our ability to drive, can lead to a DUI conviction potentially - Migraineurs aren't singled out! If we are taking medication that makes it unsafe for us to drive, we shouldn't drive. The laws are there to attempt to keep the roads safe. It's not a question of...

      RHMLucky777

      Read More

      Nanc - I guess it could be startling to realize, but any medication, for any condition, that impairs our ability to drive, can lead to a DUI conviction potentially - Migraineurs aren't singled out! If we are taking medication that makes it unsafe for us to drive, we shouldn't drive. The laws are there to attempt to keep the roads safe. It's not a question of being "judged" but if we drive erratically and we have meds in our systems we will not be let off just because the meds were prescribed.

      - Megan

       

    • trble57
      Sep. 03, 2009

      Megan,

      Iow do i say this without sounding like its all on us, because its not.  It doesn't seem right but that is the law, I just didn't relise you could be considered under the influnce. I just didn't no, and thanks for bringing this to our attention, its made me more aware  of whats to come. You see I never had to take any...

      RHMLucky777

      Read More

      Megan,

      Iow do i say this without sounding like its all on us, because its not.  It doesn't seem right but that is the law, I just didn't relise you could be considered under the influnce. I just didn't no, and thanks for bringing this to our attention, its made me more aware  of whats to come. You see I never had to take any kind of medication until 1999, that was when I had the head injury and this is when my migranes started. So just bear with me, I didn't mean to single out any one, and I sure didn't mean to affend anyone.

       

      Thanks so much

      this is a wonderful site and

      for information, and I hope to hear more.

      Nanc,

      with love for everyone

      9/03/09

    • Megan Oltman
      Sep. 03, 2009

      Nanc - Certainly, no offense taken! I just wanted to be sure it was clear, and the reasons behind it. No worries!Wink

  • Anonymous
    fathair
    Sep. 03, 2009

    very informative.  i am always hesitant driving with a migraine or while taking migraine medications and it is not always avoidable.  definately some thought provoking information!

  • Anonymous
    Anonymous
    Sep. 03, 2009

    I don't believe that anyone's license to drive priviledges should be taken away because they get migraines.  I get migraines, and have other health problems and most if not all of your medications (including blood pressure) caution about driving until you know the effects of the medicine.  There would not be very many people driving anymore if they...

    RHMLucky777

    Read More

    I don't believe that anyone's license to drive priviledges should be taken away because they get migraines.  I get migraines, and have other health problems and most if not all of your medications (including blood pressure) caution about driving until you know the effects of the medicine.  There would not be very many people driving anymore if they passed laws because of medical conditions.  But, I do agree that if a migraine impairs you to the point that you can not safely drive, call someone to come and get you!

    • Megan Oltman
      Sep. 03, 2009

      The issue is really whether someone is safe to drive or not. No one should be precluded from driving just because they have Migraines - but we need to be aware that there are things we take which can impair us, and that Migraines themselves impair us signifcantly during the attack.

      - Megan

  • bri83
    Sep. 03, 2009

    I can barely walk when I have a migraine let alone drive. My family moans and groans if they have to pick me up from somewhere when I get an attack, but the fact remains they would rather I call then attempt to drive with a migraine. My vision gets blurred and the pounding in my head is such a distraction. I am positive I could be as bad as a drunk driver at...

    RHMLucky777

    Read More

    I can barely walk when I have a migraine let alone drive. My family moans and groans if they have to pick me up from somewhere when I get an attack, but the fact remains they would rather I call then attempt to drive with a migraine. My vision gets blurred and the pounding in my head is such a distraction. I am positive I could be as bad as a drunk driver at times.

     

    This is a great article to share in case others never thought about the consequences of driving with a migraine. Thank you for the valuable information!

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