Migraines 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.
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.
~ 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.