Four signs you need to stay off the road

Linda Melone

Most people know to take a cab or designate a driver if they’ve been drinking. However, there are some reasons to stay off the road that aren’t always so obvious. Vision problems, drowsiness and some medications may affect your driving abilities enough to increase your risk of getting into a crash.

Even if your insurer is sympathetic to your health issues, it won’t make a difference if you end up in an accident. Insurance agents are only concerned about who’s at fault in an accident to determine whether a surcharge (additional fee) should be added to a policy, says Billy Wagner, territory owner with Brightway Insurance in Florida.

Four signs you need to stay off the road
Four signs you need to stay off the road

The cause of the accident comes into play only if the driver is charged with a citation such as careless driving or reckless driving, Wagner says. The specific circumstances of each accident determine whether the outcome is deemed careless or reckless, as laws vary. Reckless driving typically is a more serious offense than careless driving.

“Reckless driving usually describes driving in a willfully negligent manner, endangering the lives of people,” says Frank Scafidi, a spokesman for the nonprofit National Insurance Crime Bureau. “Careless driving, on the other hand, is more or less absent-minded driving where you are oblivious to traffic or road conditions that could jeopardize the safety of other people.”

An accident that occurs from drowsiness not associated with medication is an unintentional act, Scafidi says. “But if you are taking prescriptions or meds that caution against driving, then that could be deemed a DUI,” he says.

A citation for an at-fault accident could increase insurance premiums up to 40 percent, Wagner says.

Here are four situations when it may be best to hand the car keys over to another driver.

1. Vision loss.

A new study from Japan showed that drivers with advanced glaucoma (an eye disease that limits vision) were involved in twice the number of accidents as drivers with normal vision.

Glaucoma affects a person’s peripheral vision (the ability to see objects outside of the central vision), making it difficult to stay in the proper lane and detect pedestrians and other obstacles entering from the side of the field of vision.

Glaucoma affects more then 2.7 million Americans 40 and older and is the second leading cause of blindness in the world, after cataracts.

The Japanese study used a driving simulator and showed the most common accident scenario was when a car, object or child suddenly appeared to the side of the driver’s vision.

Regular eye exams help determine changes in vision that may affect driving. Ophthalmologists recommend eye exams every two to four years for people 40 to 54 and every one to three years for those 55 and older.

2. Drug side effects

Medications also may affect your ability to drive. Any medication that makes you sleepy or drowsy, including cold medications, can cause problems, says David Small, pharmacy manager at Nantucket Cottage Hospital in Massachusetts.

“Dramamine (for motion sickness) is always a biggie here on Nantucket, where people access the island by boat and then hop in a car and drive while they’re still under the influence of the medication,” Small says.

Even worse is if the person has a cocktail on top of the medication, since alcohol intensifies the effects of the drug. Many other medications can also make you drowsy when combined with alcohol.

“Most medications will have a warning if drowsiness is a side effect of the drug,” Small says.

Long-acting drugs create a bigger danger, as people often take them in the morning and don’t realize the drug’s effects remain in their system all day. “Some meds work for eight to 10 hours, so taking something in the morning may affect you even at dinner, especially if you have a drink,” he says.

3. Drowsy driving

Drowsy driving accounts for more than 100,000 crashes each year, resulting in more than 1,500 deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“Since there is no sleep equivalent to a breathalyzer, drivers must be tuned into signs that they should not be on the road,” says Dr. Allen Towfigh, a sleep medicine specialist and neurologist.

Some of the telltale signs of drowsy driving include:

  • Frequent blinking, blinking for a longer time, and head-nodding.
  • Having trouble keeping eyes open and focused.
  • Daydreaming or memory lapses.
  • Drifting out of the lane or off the road.

“The only remedy for sleep deprivation is sleep,” Towfigh says. However, if getting sufficient sleep is not possible, a short nap of 20 minutes, combined with one or two cups of coffee or another caffeinated beverage, may help improve driving safety.

In New Jersey, Maggie’s Law makes it illegal to knowingly operate a vehicle when drowsy. Lawmakers in Oregon, Massachusetts and New York are considering similar laws.

4. Dementia

Numerous studies also show that driving abilities decline as we age. A recent study at the Rhode Island Hospital’s Alzheimer’s Disease and Memory Disorders Center showed that this is especially true for people with dementia. Drivers whose ability to think or concentrate was impaired had more errors on driving tests compared with healthy older adults.

Researchers concluded that while it’s not necessary to automatically revoke a person’s license because of a dementia diagnosis, the person should be monitored for signs that he or she still can drive safely.

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