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Epilepsy Can Increase Risk of Traffic Accidents

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Sept. 11, 2001 -- People with epilepsy may feel it's safe to drive when their seizures seem to be under control, but is that really a safe assumption?

"Patients with epilepsy were seven times more likely to have a driving accident leading to emergency room care than those without epilepsy," Svend Lings, MD, PhD, a consultant at Odense University Hospital in Denmark, tells WebMD about his study in the Aug. 14 issue of Neurology.

Other experts interviewed by WebMD feel it's important, though, to take these findings with a grain of salt, while still using common sense to reduce driving risks.

"People who are seizure-free should be allowed to drive, but not those with frequent seizures," Robert Fisher, MD, PhD, a professor of neurology at Stanford University in California, tells WebMD. "It's a balancing act, keeping the roads safer without sacrificing the rights of the 1/2 to 1% of the population that has epilepsy."

In the U.S., individual states prohibit driving anywhere from three months to two years following a seizure. Worldwide, restrictions range from six months to never, which is obviously difficult to enforce. Other studies suggest that the risk of driving accidents for someone who has not had a seizure for six months is only 1.2-2 times greater than in the overall population -- the same or less risk than for drivers who are elderly, men under age 25, or heart patients, Fisher says.

In Lings' study, patients may have had more serious problems with epilepsy, thereby causing higher accident risk, explains Allan Krumholz, MD, a professor of neurology at University of Maryland in Baltimore. "Exactly what the accident risk is in epilepsy patients is not entirely clear."

In the U.S., the population of women with epilepsy has a better driving record than the population of all men with and without epilepsy, says Sandy Finucane, a lawyer for the Epilepsy Foundation of America in Landover, Md.

"Most accidents in people with epilepsy are due to driver error, the same cause of accidents as in the general public," Krumholz tells WebMD.

Not taking medications as prescribed is the leading cause of seizures in epileptics, explains Gregory B. Sharp, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics and neurology at University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

"If you have epilepsy and are going to drive, you have to be very compulsive about taking your medication," Sharp tells WebMD after reviewing the study.

Of the 10 patients in Lings' study taken to the hospital after a car accident, only one had been forbidden to drive. Nine were driving legally as their seizures appeared to be controlled. A seizure probably caused the accident in four patients, and may have caused it in three others.

"People with epilepsy have the right to drive, but their risk is going to be higher," Sharp says. "If seizures are not controlled, they should not be allowed to drive."

Easier said than done. "Many people with epilepsy never report that they have the condition," Finucane tells WebMD.

If you have any questions about whether you should be driving, consult your doctor. Statistics aside, it's better to be safe than sorry.

How can you avoid driving without compromising your lifestyle?

  • Take alternative transportation: walk, public transit
  • Share a ride with a neighbor or co-worker, perhaps in exchange for household help or other services
  • Work at home or study online: the Internet has opened up a world of opportunities
  • Bring services to you: Meals-On-Wheels, takeout or grocery delivery; shop by mail from specialty and discount stores worldwide; surf the Net or join online chat groups.

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