If you have epilepsy, you may wonder whether you can drive. The answer to this question is unique to each person. Depending on your specific medical situation and the laws in your state, you may be able to drive if you have epilepsy.
Communication with your healthcare team is key to making sure you can safely drive. Keep reading to find out what you need to know if you have epilepsy and want to drive.
Can you drive if you have epilepsy?
Legally, every U.S. state allows certain people with epilepsy to drive. Because each state has its own individual requirements, it’s important to make sure you’re up to date on the ones in your state.
Many states require people to be seizure-free for a specified amount of time before getting behind the wheel. That seizure-free period can range anywhere from 3 months to 2 years.
They may also require a physician’s evaluation of your ability to drive safely, or they may ask you to submit your medical records periodically to ensure that you’re receiving appropriate and effective treatment.
In general, though, states require that you’re seizure-free, that you ensure your seizures are manageable, and that your neurologist feels that your seizures are under control.
For many people with epilepsy, working with a neurologist to help manage symptoms can help them reach a state’s required seizure-free threshold. In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), up to 70% of all people with epilepsy could become seizure-free with the appropriate treatment.
How do you find the laws about driving with epilepsy in your state?
An easy way to learn more about your state’s specific guidelines is through the Epilepsy Foundation’s searchable state-by-state database.
You can also contact your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or Department of Driver’s Services (DDS).
Epilepsy symptoms may look different for each person.
There are two main types of seizures: partial (focal) and general.
Seizures that do not cause loss of consciousness are called focal seizures, previously called partial seizures. These affect one part of the brain and can cause:
- changes in taste or smell, sight, hearing, or touch
- twitching and tingling limbs
- staring blanky
- repetitive movements
Generalized seizures affect the entire brain and may lead to a variety of symptoms. Subtypes of generalized seizures include:
- Absence seizures: Absence seizures used to be called “petit mal seizures.” This type can lead to loss of awareness, blank stares, and repetitive movements like lip smacking or blinking.
- Tonic seizures: Tonic seizures create sudden stiffness in your legs, arms, or trunk.
- Atonic seizures: Also known as “drop seizures,” atonic seizures occur because of a sudden loss of muscle strength which can make you fall suddenly.
- Clonic seizures: This type can cause jerky muscle movements of the face, neck, or arms.
- Myoclonic seizures: Myoclonic seizures cause quick twitching of the arms and legs.
- Tonic-clonic seizures: Once called “grand mal seizures,” tonic-clonic seizures are some of the most severe seizures you can experience. Symptoms include stiffening of the body followed by muscle jerking, shaking, loss of bladder or bowel control, biting of the tongue, and loss of consciousness.
Experiencing any of these types of focal or generalized seizures while driving is dangerous for you and others on the road.
It’s important to work with your neurologist to ensure you meet your state’s guidelines and have been seizure-free for the legally required time period.
What is epilepsy?
Epilepsy is a chronic neurological condition that causes repeated seizures. Epilepsy affects over 50 million people worldwide. You may be diagnosed with epilepsy if you experience two or more unprovoked seizures.
Seizures happen when there’s a rush of intense electrical activity in your brain. This electrical activity can lead to a wide variety of symptoms like involuntary movements and loss of consciousness.
There are several different types of seizures, and some are more common at different ages. One type of seizure in children is characterized by a period of absently staring off and being unresponsive. Meanwhile, in adults, the most common seizures consist of an episode of involuntary movement in part of the body (partial seizure) or across the entire body (generalized seizure).
Seizures look different for everyone but certain occurrences, such as tongue biting, loss of consciousness, and loss of bowel or bladder control, can help inform healthcare professionals when diagnosing epilepsy.
Although there’s no cure, there are many ways to manage epilepsy through medication and other therapies.
Does taking seizure medications mean you can’t drive?
Antiepileptic drugs (AEDs) are the first-choice medication for most people with epilepsy. While AEDs can be very effective in reducing your risk of seizure, they can lead to side effects, including:
- trouble concentrating
- loss of balance
- loss of memory
- slow reaction times
These symptoms may be more severe and happen more often if you’re starting a new medication or changing the dosage of a medication you’re already taking. Some medications even have labels alerting you to “not operate heavy machinery.”
However, a 2018 study found no increase in accidents reported by drivers taking AEDs. They did find that drivers with epilepsy had about a 30% greater chance of having an accident while driving than drivers who did not have epilepsy. These results were similar to those of other studies.
Discuss your medications and whether you can drive while taking them with your neurologist and healthcare team.
Do other countries have laws about driving with epilepsy?
Driving outside of the country with epilepsy requires research into each country’s rules and regulations.
For example, in Europe, the guidelines vary widely based on the country you’re in. Some countries implement a 12-month seizure-free interval, while others have a blanket ban on any person with epilepsy driving. Many advocates and task forces are working to unify the regulations across Europe.
However, in many other countries, people with epilepsy remain restricted from driving.
Do drivers with epilepsy have more accidents?
Studies on whether drivers with epilepsy have more accidents than those without epilepsy are difficult to conduct, and more research is needed in this area.
However, a review from 2019 found that up to 39% of people with epilepsy drove in violation of their state-determined restrictions. Driving outside of the required seizure-free interval or without the OK from a neurologist or other appropriate healthcare professional may put you at greater risk of having a seizure while driving.
Another recent study estimated that people with epilepsy have an accident rate between 1.13 and 2.16 times that of people without epilepsy.
Frequently asked questions
What should I do if someone is having a seizure?
If possible, you can ensure that the area around the individual is free of hazards to them including furniture that they may hit during the seizure.
If the seizure lasts for more than 5 minutes or this is the person’s first seizure, you should call 911 and activate the emergency response system.
The common advice that you should put a wallet or stick in the seizing person’s mouth or restrain them is not true. In fact, these interventions can lead to more harm to the person having a seizure and to other people trying to help.
If I have only had one seizure, do I have epilepsy? Can I drive?
Having one seizure does not necessarily mean that you have epilepsy.
However, you’ll have to follow your state’s rules about how long you must be seizure-free before you’re allowed to drive a car again, even if you have only had one seizure.
Your doctor can diagnose your seizure and help you learn if and when you are able to drive again.
How long does a seizure last?
Most seizures last between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. Afterward, people may be confused or disoriented.
A brief seizure is often not detrimental to the brain. But seizures lasting longer than 5 minutes can cause significant damage and are often managed with medications to terminate the seizure.
If someone has a short seizure, do they need to go to the hospital?
People with epilepsy do not need to call 911 every time they have a seizure. It depends on the events of the seizure they had.
Most people with epilepsy have a seizure care plan, and many may wear a special medical alert bracelet with helpful information in case they have a seizure.
Call 911 or seek medical care for an individual who has a seizure if:
- the person is injured
- it’s their first seizure ever
- the seizure lasts more than 5 minutes
- the person is unconscious after the seizure stops
Driving while having epilepsy is about finding a balance between safety and practicality.
If you’re driving with epilepsy, you must ensure that you’re following your proper state seizure-free threshold guidelines and communicating clearly and honestly with your healthcare professional about your seizure symptoms.
Thousands of people with epilepsy drive every day. It is up to you and your healthcare professional to determine how best to manage your symptoms to ensure you get home safely.
Source: healthline.com, Sydney Randall