States must do a better job identifying and removing from roadways drivers with medical conditions like epilepsy and dementia that make them dangerous to other motorists, federal safety officials said Tuesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states adopt laws to guarantee legal immunity for doctors, family members and others who report dangerous drivers to state motor vehicle officials. Twenty states and the District of Columbia have no such laws.
Six states — Nevada, California, Delaware, New Jersey, Oregon and Pennsylvania — require doctors to report drivers with high-risk conditions.
Board members said police need to be trained to spot drivers with medical problems and doctors should be taught to talk to patients about whether they should be driving. The board also said federal agencies need to coordinate transportation possibilities for people who can no longer drive.
The government has no data on crashes caused by medical conditions, so the extent of the problem is unknown. The NTSB studied six crashes, including five caused by epileptics having seizures and one by a diabetic who had a blackout, before issuing Tuesday’s recommendations. The crashes, in Maryland, Pennsylvania and Florida, killed eight people and injured 24.
NTSB Chairwoman Ellen Engleman Conners said the board must be cautious about acting without data to show what kinds of drivers pose the greatest risk.
“We don’t want to say people with diabetes shouldn’t drive,” she said.
Conners said as many as one in four drivers could have a condition that may cause a crash if authorities included arthritis, sleep disorders, high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, alcoholism and cataracts. She also wondered whether those conditions are more dangerous than severe allergies or distractions like cell phones.
“You’re talking about a huge federal action that’s potentially going to reach ... into every patient’s life,” Conners said. “The concern I have is the potential for overreaching.”
Dr. Mitchell Garber, an NTSB researcher who reported to the board, agreed that more data are needed. He said states also need federal direction and more communication with each other about practices that work. States are floundering because they don’t know which medical conditions are dangerous, which crashes were caused by medical conditions and when it is appropriate to revoke licenses.
Board member Debbie Hersman said her husband had an epileptic seizure while driving in New York. She said New York revoked his driving privileges without consulting authorities in Virginia, where he was licensed. In Virginia, he is allowed to renew his license only with a doctor’s permission.
“We have a patchwork system that doesn’t make any sense,” Hersman said.
The NTSB has no enforcement power and can only recommend changes.