By Eileen B. Wyner, NP
Bulfinch Medical Group
Possessing a driver’s license is a rite of passage in our society.
A driver’s license is seen as a gateway to independence and is a necessity for survival in many instances since many places in the US don’t have adequate public transportation. Driving is such a huge part of our lives, but there are instances when the ability to drive competently is also at issue. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) published a Position Statement on Diabetes and Driving in the 2014 Clinical Practice Recommendations. I would like to summarize the key points of this Position to provide an overview to help both people with diabetes and their health care providers have the best information about driving with diabetes.
The process for identifying drivers with diabetes varies from state to state, depending on what type of vehicle the driver needs to be licensed for. In some states, questions such as “Do you have any medical condition that may interfere with the safe operation of a motor vehicle?” are asked at the initial application for license. These questions may then prompt the need for further medical evaluation. There is no need for a medical examination just because the driver has diabetes. Most often a medical evaluation would be requested when there has been a documented episode of hypoglycemia while driving. Visit the ADA Website for more information on specific rules for each state.
Drivers with diabetes that are commercial drivers in interstate commerce have different rules and follow a set of uniform federal regulations. ALL drivers are subject to an examination every 2 years to update the driver’s ongoing general fitness. Drivers with diabetes managed with diet, exercise, and oral medications do not have any further requirements. Drivers who use insulin often require a more detailed medical evaluation so an exemption to drive and medical certification can be granted. Drivers for commercial motor vehicles, such as school bus drivers and vehicles that transport passengers or hazardous materials are subjected to more strict evaluations that differ state to state.
There are many factors to consider when caring for the driver with diabetes. I want to be clear: a diagnosis of diabetes or the use of oral medications or insulin does not mean that driving ability is compromised. The ADA has determined that the single most significant factor associated with collisions for drivers with diabetes appears to be a recent history of severe hypoglycemia regardless of diabetes type or treatment. The ADA Workgroup on Hypoglycemia defines severe hypoglycemia as an event that disrupts cognitive motor function and requires the assistance of another person to treat the hypoglycemic event.
The plan of assessment and care of the driver with diabetes needs to be individualized. It is important to not only review hypoglycemia awareness, but to also review the other conditions that could interfere with safe driving. These conditions may include decreased visual acuity due to retinopathy or cataracts, neuropathy that diminishes the sensation of the right foot, or sleep apnea which can result in daytime sleepiness. Drivers that have had a hypoglycemic event will need much closer evaluation and education. The driver may need re-education to address issues with mealtimes and dosing of medications (or medications may need to be adjusted altogether), further education about hypoglycemia awareness, and the best methods of treating low blood sugars. Drivers who have had episodes with severe hypoglycemia may also need to perform additional glucometer testing.
People driving for long distances should have a good supply of glucose tablets easily available in the glove compartment or in the console. A supply of snacks such as packages of cheese and peanut butter crackers or nuts should also be stored in the front of the car with the driver and checked before each trip. Drivers who feel hypoglycemia occurring while driving should pull off the road immediately, put on their blinkers, and treat with a fast acting carbohydrate. Do not resume driving until blood sugar values are normalized.
Finally, I advise that all of my patients with diabetes have a medical ID with them at all times. Symptoms of hypoglycemia may appear as if driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, which can lead to losing precious treatment time if there is an incident where you are unable to identify yourself as having diabetes. First responders are trained to look for things like a bracelet or necklace, or a card in the wallet.