Rules of the Road

After a major medical event, such as a stroke, are you still allowed to drive? 

Video: UPS driver recalls how he survived stroke with help of Whatcom County Sheriff’s Deputy

Duane Merrick details how Colin Bertrand, a Whatcom County Sheriff's Deputy, slammed his patrol car into the UPS truck while Merrick was having a stroke in Bellingham. Go to www.bellinghamherald.com for more. Wilson Criscione / The Bellingham Hera
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Duane Merrick details how Colin Bertrand, a Whatcom County Sheriff's Deputy, slammed his patrol car into the UPS truck while Merrick was having a stroke in Bellingham. Go to www.bellinghamherald.com for more. Wilson Criscione / The Bellingham Hera

Question: Might you know if there is a state law regarding driving after having a stroke? Is there a restriction on a driver’s license for a period of time after having a stroke?

Answer: This is a tricky one. You’ll understand why at the end.

I don’t know of any law that specifically prohibits a person who has had a stroke from driving. That makes sense — strokes come in many varieties, and not all of them affect a person’s ability to drive.

So let’s make the question broader: If you experience a health event that negatively affects your driving, are you still allowed to drive?

There are two parts to this answer: What the law says about your own driving, and what the law gives the Department of Licensing (DOL) authority to do.

The thing about knowing for sure that there’s not a law against something is that it’s like trying to prove that Bigfoot doesn’t exist. Just because you haven’t found one doesn’t mean there isn’t one lurking just out of sight, and there are so many places you haven’t looked yet.

I looked in the most likely places (for a law, not Bigfoot) in the titles “Motor Vehicles” and “Public Health and Safety.” The closest thing I can find to a prohibition on driving after experiencing a medical event that affects driving would be Negligent Driving – Second Degree.

Negligence, in the context of driving, is operating a motor vehicle in a way that endangers or is likely to endanger someone, and a deviation from what a reasonably careful person would do in a similar situation.

That might describe someone who has just experienced significant cognitive decline from a stroke, and in a few instances (none that I could find in Washington) courts have determined that drivers who caused a crash after suffering from stroke, complications from diabetes and other medical conditions were negligent.

On the Department of Licensing side of things, the rules are a bit clearer. The DOL can revoke or places limitations on a driver’s license if they become aware of a medical condition that impacts a person’s driving.

The big question here is, how do they become aware of it?

One way is at a driver’s license renewal. The DOL employee renewing the license will observe the driver and ask if the person has a physical or mental condition, or if the person is taking medication that affects their ability to drive.

DOL may require an examination by a doctor who submits a physical examination report.

Here’s the problem with that method: A driver license is valid for six years, and you can renew it online every other time. You could theoretically have a medically impairing event right after you renew your license at DOL and continue driving for 12 years before DOL sees you again and takes your license away.

DOL also can find out about a medical incident that affects driving because someone tells them. This could be anyone who has firsthand knowledge that a person is no longer a safe driver — a concerned family member, a police officer who observes some issues during a traffic stop, the person’s doctor.

A doctor seems like the best person to report driving concerns, but because of patient confidentiality it’s not so simple.

In a few states the law requires doctors to report patients who shouldn’t drive to their licensing agency. In Washington, it’s not required, but the law does have an exception to patient confidentiality when “necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of a person or the public,” which allows doctors to report concerns to DOL without violating confidentiality rules.

If a doctor hasn’t reported an unsafe driver, it may come down to family and friends to intervene. You might wish you could do it anonymously, but the form you submit to DOL is public record, so be ready to admit to Uncle Dave that you’re the one who reported him.

Yeah, there’s no happy option here.

Either Uncle Dave is mad at you for losing his license, or you stress out every time he gets in his car because you know he’s eventually going to hit someone.

Sometimes doing the right thing means doing the hard thing. If you asked your question because you’re concerned about someone you love, I wish you compassion and courage as you deal with this challenging situation.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.
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