Medical conditions that affect driving safety

Gina Roberts-Grey
A cold, the flu and even a chronic condition like fibromyalgia can impair your ability to drive -- and may put your auto insurance rates in jeopardy.
Auto insurance applications don’t typically ask about health conditions, so it’s up to you to be aware of how your health affects your ability to drive.
State Farm agent Sarah Holtrup in Indiana says that even though your auto insurance company does not ask about your health, the insurer can choose to not renew your policy or to raise your rates if an accident was caused by a chronic condition or by medications you were taking.
“Claim history, including the number of accidents and driving history, factor into car insurance rates,” Holtrup says.
Here are some illnesses that can make it hard to stay safe on the road -- or hang on to your low car insurance rates.
Cold and flu
On their own, a cold or the flu might not have much of an effect on your driving. But if you take over-the-counter drugs like NyQuil or antihistamines, you could feel tired or sluggish for up to eight hours, according to California internist Dr. Gregory Smith. Smith says you shouldn’t drive for at least 12 hours after taking this type of medicine “just to be safe,” even if the label says the remedy is non-drowsy.
Dr. Lori Helke, a clinical pharmacist at Optima Health in Virginia, says cough medicine containing dextromethorphan (shown as DM on the label) can cause drowsiness, blurred vision and confusion. This can make it tough, for instance, to focus on street signs or on animals that may run out into the road.
In addition, cough syrup often contains alcohol, another ingredient that can make driving hazardous.
Common eye conditions
Several eye conditions can affect someone's ability to drive; presbyopia and night vision are two of the most common.
Presbyopia occurs when the eye’s crystalline lens becomes increasingly inflexible, making it difficult to focus on nearby objects. “Most people first notice symptoms around the age of 45, when it’s harder and harder to read small print. … You may find yourself holding a book further and further away from your face,” says Dr. Harvey Fishman, an ophthalmologist and cataract specialist in California.
On the road, this can be a problem because you might not be able to clearly read the speedometer or know what gear you’re in.
Fishman says over-the-counter eyeglasses work may work for people with minor vision problems. For people with more severe conditions, bifocals or progressive lenses may be called for.
Another common eye condition is night blindness, where sufferers experience a glare or halos around lights when they’re driving at night. With this condition, you enjoy normal vision during the day, but encounter difficulties seeing at night.
“Night blindness affects every aspect of driving, from not seeing signs, to missing turn-offs and having to make erratic turns. Oncoming lights can also exacerbate the problem,” Fishman says.
Prescription lenses may help you stay safe and reduce symptoms. Fishman says: “A lot of people drive without their glasses, and sometimes during the day they’re OK (because) your pupil gets smaller. But during the night, your pupil gets bigger, causing problems with driving.”
Fibro fog is a symptom of fibromyalgia, a chronic condition that causes confusion, memory loss, pain and fatigue. Fibro fog can interfere with your ability to avoid a traffic mishap. “In general, brain fog can cause decreased ability to concentrate, decreased reaction time and forgetfulness,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, clinical assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
Drivers with fibro fog might find it tough to concentrate on the rules of the road, pay attention to fellow drivers and street signs, or maintain a safe speed.
“Fibromyalgia patients may also have difficulty turning their head to see in blind spots,” says Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, medical director of the Fibromyalgia and Fatigue Centers. “Sleep apnea is another fibromyalgia-related symptom that happens because pain keeps patients up at night. … (This) is associated with an increased risk of falling asleep while driving.”
Drivers with diabetes must be aware of spiking blood sugar levels impairing their judgment and energy, but diabetes could wreak havoc with their driving in other ways.
“In 2010, an elderly gentleman with diabetic peripheral neuropathy was pulling up to my office, (and) his foot slipped off the brake onto the gas pedal,” says Dr. Brandon Macy, a podiatrist in New Jersey. “He slammed his car into the front of my office. Considerable damage occurred, but thankfully there were no injuries.”
Macy says peripheral neuropathy, which causes numbness is your hands and feet, is an often-overlooked problem with diabetics. “People who experience this can develop problems with a loss of feel on the gas pedal and, more importantly, brake pedal,” he says.
Diabetes can develop slowly, so diabetics should undergo routine medical check-ups to test their reflexes and feet sensations.

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