Epilepsy, a neurological condition that causes recurring seizures, is more common than you probably realize. One in every 26 people will be diagnosed with epilepsy during their lives. In the United States alone, close to 140,000 cases are diagnosed in a given year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Having a seizure while driving could be dangerous or even fatal. Here’s a look at when people with epilepsy are and are not allowed to do behind the wheel — and how the condition might affect their auto insurance coverage.
A state-by-state decision
Whether a driver who's diagnosed with epilepsy is permitted to drive a car depends on several factors, such as where he lives and how long it's been since his last seizure.
State laws vary, but a driver must have been seizure-free for a set period of time to be legally allowed to drive. It doesn’t matter whether the seizures are controlled by medication, or whether the individual has simply stopped having seizures naturally.
In California, for instance, a driver who hasn’t suffered a seizure for three to five months qualifies for “Medical probation Type II.” That's when the motorist’s doctor must submit medical evaluations on a regular basis. Once the person has been seizure-free for six months, he's eligible for “Medical probation Type III,” when the driver will self-report any seizures or medical issues. However, Jessica Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles, says that if someone has a history of withholding medical information from doctors or has made inconsistent statements, he might not be eligible for Type III probation.
In any case, a California driver should be eligible for full driving privileges again after six months without seizures.
If you drive a commercial vehicle such as a delivery truck, you’ll need to remain seizure-free for a longer period. According to the Stanford Epilepsy Center, drivers must not have had a seizure for 10 years in order to get a license to operate a commercial vehicle.
Although time frames vary, every state has similar limitations based on how recently seizures have happened.
Penalties for accidents
When epileptic drivers who get into car accidents because of seizures or medication problems cause car accidents, judges are allowed to decide how lenient or tough to be. Such decisions can vary greatly.
In 2002, a Florida man named Emilio Santacruz suffered an epileptic seizure while driving and crashed into an office building; the accident killed a woman inside. A judge determined that because the accident was a result of Santacruz’s medical condition, he should not get prison time. However, his driver's license was revoked for 15 years. Ten years later, Santacruz was sent to prison for nine years after it was discovered that he had been driving -- a violation of his probation.
In another case, Michelle Bosley of Maryland experienced a behind-the-wheel lapse in consciousness in 2007 because of her epilepsy or her epilepsy medication. While unconscious, she hit another car, killing the other driver. The judge in her case took a stricter approach: Bosley was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and sentenced to 30 weekends in jail. She also was forced to give up her driver’s license.
Epilepsy and auto insurance
So, how does epilepsy affect your auto insurance rates? While insurance company representatives decline to disclose specifics, Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, says that it generally does not.
“Typically, insurance companies do not ask on an application whether the applicant has epilepsy,” she says. “The accident itself that leads to a claim, of course, could cause a rate change. The fact that it was the fault of the insured (driver) could have an impact. But the fact the mishap was the result of an epileptic seizure would not.
“It would be extremely rare that an insurer would even know whether the medical condition of the driver had anything to do with an accident.”
While you’re not required to notify your insurance company if you’ve suffered an epileptic seizure, you'll be required to notify your state’s motor vehicle department and you may not be allowed to drive for a certain period.
Even if you’re not driving after a recent seizure, it may not be practical to cancel your auto insurance, since it may be difficult to get a new policy if you haven’t had continuous coverage.
However, you can reduce your rates by removing yourself as a registered driver. Or if the policy is solely in your name, you can ask for the “parking only” rate and tell your insurer that your car isn't being driven at the time, according to a moderator on the Coping with Epilepsy forums. This will save a considerable amount of money on premiums. It also will ensure that when you are able to drive again, you’ll be able to maintain your existing coverage.
Is epilepsy a road hazard?
While motorists who experience frequent seizures aren't eligible to drive and shouldn’t consider getting behind the wheel, statistics show that patients with properly managed epilepsy show no more risk than those with other common health conditions.
In fact, a 1997 study from Johns Hopkins University found that just 86 of the 44,000 traffic deaths in a single year could be attributed to epilepsy-related causes. Driving under the influence of alcohol is a far bigger risk, the study found. Drivers who’d consumed alcohol were involved in deadly crashes 156 times more frequently than epileptic drivers were.
If you have epilepsy, follow the recommendations of your doctor and adhere to your state's laws when it comes to driving, whether that means avoiding it altogether or taking medication to prevent seizures.