Migraines and Our Driver's License

I wrote last time about how Migr


I wrote last time about how Migraines and driving, as well as some Migraine medications and driving, don't mix (Migraines & Driving Don't Mix). To generalize, in most cases so far, driving while impaired by the effects of Migraine medications has been considered DUI, and liability has been imposed; but driving while impaired by the effects of the Migraine itself has not led to liability. Given the logical underpinnings of these cases, however, and the state of the law, I would not be surprised at some point to see liability imposed if someone who knowingly drives with a Migraine (which impairs them), causes a serious accident.

As Migraineurs, I hope that we will be responsible, and recognize that a Migraine impacts us in ways that we often don't recognize. Studies have shown that, even in subjects who thought they were unimpaired, a Migraine attack:

• slows our reflexes

• impairs cognitive function

• distracts us and

• can distort our visual and perceptual abilities

If we feel a Migraine coming on while driving, we need to pull over. When we have a Migraine, we need to ask for a ride, take public transportation, or wait until the Migraine has passed. Many of us do self-restrict; some have given up driving entirely, others are careful not to drive around or during an attack.

How the law seeks to deal with this issue thus far is mainly through imposition of limits in the Motor Vehicle Codes, rather than through imposing criminal liability.

I first learned about this issue through a question here on MyMigraineConnection - a member wrote that she had voluntarily revealed to her state's Motor Vehicle Commission (MVC) that she has Migraines, and they were considering suspending her license. How it came about was that her son, who lived at home, had his driving privileges suspended and was applying for a restricted license so he could drive himself to work. Since the mother was at home, the MVC initially said that the mother could drive him to work. The mother informed them that she could not always drive him because, if she had a Migraine, she could not drive. The MVC used this as a reason to review her driving privileges, with a suggestion that they might suspend her license.

Sounds like a nightmare, doesn't it? Especially since the woman had self-reported and was obviously very responsible - she was telling them straight out that she would not drive with a Migraine! Nonetheless, the MVC required medical documentation and a re-examination. She had to take a new road test. I had never heard of this problem before, nor had any of the other attorneys I asked about it. But another member of the site posted a comment and let us know that her MVC, in a different state, had put her license under review for 2 years due to Migraines. She had to submit periodic doctor's notes about her treatment and recertify that she would not drive with a Migraine.

So, why would they do this to us? I know that's the reaction many of us are probably having, and I had it myself, initially. This is a difficult issue. The job of the MVCs, of course, is to assure that only those who are safe to drive are actually on the road. When we apply for a driver's license, we first have to show that our health does not impair our ability to drive. There are vision tests, for instance, and certain medical conditions, such as seizure disorders, have always carried some level of restriction in driving privileges.

Once we're licensed, traditionally there was not much supervision of our driving unless we got caught up in the system through some kind of a violation. About 30 years ago, this began to change - there were a few high-profile accidents, and the issue of elderly drivers, who might not have the vision, reflexes, or mental acuity they once did, got a lot of press. Many states put in procedures to review driving privileges if a driver's abilities came into question. While these procedures were initially designed to re-examine elderly drivers to be sure they were still safe to drive, the laws were broadly written to allow MVCs to re-examine anyone whose driving abilities they might question due to any health-related condition.

Thirty-four of the 50 states have Medical Advisory Boards that review driver's licensing for older and "medically-at-risk" drivers. Most of these boards have the power to restrict (as in allowing driving only during daylight), suspend, or revoke driving privileges for individuals. Some are required to get input from the individual's own physician, while others are not. Even in states which do not have a Medical Advisory Board set up, the motor vehicle laws are usually broadly written to give the MVC the power to restrict licenses as they see fit. The California Motor Vehicle Code, for instance, is very broadly worded so that the MVC can suspend a license if in their judgment a person is "unable to safely operate a motor vehicle upon a highway." CA Veh. Code Sec. 12805. They have the right to re-examine at any time if they receive "evidence of a condition that may affect the ability... to safely operate a motor vehicle." CA Veh. Code Sec. 12814.

Evidence of a condition that "may affect the ability to safely operate a motor vehicle" can be any evidence, and can come to a MVC through the observation of a police officer, or through anyone else's observation or report, including the individual him or herself. So, yes, self-revealing can lead to scrutiny.

If we're flagged, we'll need to get medical documentation that we know the signs of a Migraine and we will not drive with one. We may also need to reveal the medications we are on, and let the MVC know we won't drive under the effect of the medications. We may have to retake either the written or the road test, or both. We may find ourselves under scrutiny for some period of time.

Is this fair? Surely, the case of our member above results from a gross misunderstanding of Migraine disease. She was clearly self-restricting, and she let the MVC know that she could not and would not drive with a Migraine. As many of you commented on my earlier article, some of us can hardly walk straight during a Migraine attack, let alone drive. Many of us would not try it. I have no doubt that MVCs everywhere are as ignorant of Migraine disease as are most of the public.

The fact remains, however, that Migraine is highly impairing. Migraine attacks impair us in ways that we often would deny because we seem fine to ourselves. While most of us choose not to drive with a Migraine, if we choose differently, through concerns of convenience or mental fuzziness at the moment, the consequences can be severe. I don't want my driving privileges suspended and I don't want that to happen to you either. We do need to take this as seriously as we would drinking and driving - and just don't do it! Plan ahead for such times by preparing a list of phone numbers of friends or family members who can help us get places when we have a Migraine. For times when they may all be unavailable, keep the number of a taxi service on that list too.

Please, plan ahead, and be safe.


CA Veh. Code Sec. 12805

CA Veh. Code Sec. 12814

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