Driving & MS: Realizing Potential Dangers
As I write this, it’s been about two weeks since a Staten Island woman, claiming to suffer from Multiple Sclerosis, mowed down and killed two young children in a crosswalk. She referenced her illness and said that a seizure was to blame for the incident. A similar incident happened just over a year ago, when a Brooklyn man suffered an MS-related spasm while driving and ended up killing someone in a similar fashion. These are two highly publicized incidents, however, I have no doubt there have been other ones that have not been as prominent in the news.
The worst-case scenarios when driving
These cases illustrate the very worst of what can occur when it comes to driving with Multiple Sclerosis. While they may not be the norm, there are certainly plenty of challenges when it comes to driving with our disease. Enough potential issues that, with the help of my doctor, I decided several years ago to turn in my keys. While it is hard to live without driving, I know it’s the right decision for me.
When I stopped driving
I essentially stopped driving around the time I was pushed onto disability. That probably makes sense to some people right? I can’t work, I can’t drive. Plenty of people on disability can still drive, but in my case, the same symptoms that affected my job performance also impacted my driving. My symptoms were making it harder and harder to drive without putting myself and others at extreme risk. It wasn’t a case of, “I’m on disability now, so I’m automatically unable to drive”, far from it. In fact, after being placed on disability, I continued to attempt to drive. I had plenty of near misses too.
Cognitive issues affected my ability to drive safely
It wasn’t only spasms or seizures like the people in the stories above, but cognitive issues that were causing increasingly scary moments. Memory issues, like forgetting where I was and how to get where I was going were always common, but I began having issues with remembering and understanding how things work, what signs mean, which pedal does what, problems with my attention span, and difficulty with the speed at which everything was happening. I also began experiencing some extreme sensory overload while driving (and still do many times when I’m in a vehicle, which can make travel difficult).
Talking to my doctor about driving safety
It was a family member (all of these symptoms can also make attending a doctor’s visit alone very difficult, so I always have a family member or friend attend with me) who first mentioned, out of concern, “should he still be driving?” to my doctor. The doctor then began asking my thoughts on the matter and after some discussion, we decided, no, I probably shouldn’t be driving. He wouldn’t officially restrict me but that was under the promise that I be responsible and don’t drive. I have a long relationship with this physician and he trusts me to do the right thing. This was probably around four years ago at this point.
Bringing up the topic of driving yourself
Every once in a while, I will drive a couple miles, in the middle of the day, on a country road, to a friend’s place of work. Even then, my roommate checks me out in the morning and makes sure she agrees that I can do it. I no longer have a vehicle of my own, which makes it a lot less tempting to try driving. I do have to say, that I’m not sure my doctor would have discussed driving had my family member not brought it up. That’s a reminder that it’s often up to us to bring this discussion to the forefront.
Being unable to drive in a rural area
Not driving any more is extremely difficult, particularly where I live, which is a lot more rural than anywhere else I’ve lived. Living in a city and not driving is easy. In a lot of ways, a city can be a dream for someone who has disabilities. Public transportation, services like Uber and Lyft, and close proximity to places you need to go make urban living significantly more accessible than where I currently live. I am now very much at the mercy of my friends to get around. That’s not easy when you are someone that hates to rely on others (thankfully, Uber has had an increasing presence where I live and is making my life much easier).
Increasing feelings of isolation
Not being able to drive (coupled with my stubbornness in accepting help) has had a profound effect on my independence and loneliness. I’ve really learned how much people take driving for granted. The ability to get up and go wherever you need to is just amazing. Seeing friends, buying groceries, going to the post office, or even taking your dog to the park - all of these things become difficult when you no longer drive.
Giving up driving was the right decision
Despite the difficulties it’s brought, I know that not driving is the right decision. The unpredictable nature of MS, particularly at this stage of my life with it, makes it too dangerous. It’s easy to forget what can happen when we are behind the wheel and just how permanent the consequences can be when something goes wrong. At some point, having a discussion about driving with your health care professionals is important, but realize that you may have to initiate it. We have to be responsible about our disease, and sometimes that means asking questions that may have answers we don’t like.
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