An angry car key and a medical alert bracelet in a dresser drawer

The Debate About Driving

Nothing in my life has been as terrifying as when I didn't know if I'd hit someone with my car during an epileptic seizure and then drove off. Hit and run. Criminal felony.

In 1991, I was seizing more frequently than any time in my life – every 2 days. My hallucinations of seeing myself as a homeless vagrant during the preceding auras were nightmares of their own. Ridiculously – because I'd already walked away unblemished from 3 car accidents in 4 months, and the mass transit in suburban Chicago seemed too inconvenient for me – I kept driving. (I've lived in other cities since and realize now that metro Chicago's was superb!)

My complex-partial seizures sometimes let me continue with my functions, like driving, but maybe not all that well or responsibly.

Seizure blackouts while driving

During one morning's rush, I seized while driving on a crowded 4-lane street. When I snapped out of it, I realized that I was circling inside a parking garage where I'd worked about 3 years earlier. It was 2 miles from my last memory before the seizure.

That realization might have been what triggered a second seizure in less than 30 seconds, and I wasn't prone to back-to-back seizures. When I came to, my car was turned off and parked in a lot across a different busy 4-lane street from where I was then employed.

That meant that during horrendous traffic, I probably drove through 5-10 traffic lights and got onto – and exited – one of Chicago's fastest 6-lane expressways for further than 2 more miles!

Did I hit another car?

The surprises weren't over. My right front fender was smashed and the rearview mirror on my passenger door was broken. Even before I had time to question how all this happened, I explosively recollected a news story from the previous week. It had become Illinois law that hit-and-run drivers would be prosecuted the same as manslaughter: facing 2-5 years in prison and huge fines.

I gasped, clinging to my steering wheel. My mind floundered on how to get out of this mess. I struggled to rationalize, but the image of myself behind bars in orange coveralls was more frightening than the hallucination of being homeless ever was!

It seemed that if I had hit or killed someone, a judge would probably be easier on me by turning myself in. But what if no one had been hurt by me? Maybe I'd only struck a parked car and no one reported it: but my confession would still cause me trouble.

Scared of the consequences

My final decision was to call a friend with ties to the police. I went into the donut shop I'd parked next to and used its payphone. He listened to me pour out my guts, and afterward, his silence weighed heavier on me than a mountain, until he sighed. He ordered me not to leave while he'd make some calls once we hung up.

I might have wept, imagining myself behind bars, while waiting. When a guy tried to make a call, I yelled, "Get away from that phone!" and he looked as if I was a lunatic. The longest half-hour in my life ended when the phone rang and I jumped to get it. It was my friend, and he said that no hit-and-run accidents had been reported anywhere in the metro Chicago area for that morning.

Driving after having seizures... for the final time

After all that, I kept driving. A week later I plowed into the side of a semi-truck – right behind its gas tank. Its rear wheels crunched my passenger side. Believe it or not, I walked away with nothing more than a cracked rib and a chipped tooth!

Since it happened at night, everyone assumed I'd fallen asleep at the wheel and I let them think that. That young policeman's chuckle still rings in my head: "You shoulda been killed!"

I still have a license but haven't driven since. I don't intend to until I can go 2 years seizure-free. It wasn't until last year that I passed 6 months for the first time in 57 years.

Not being able to drive with epilepsy

Being unable to drive is my biggest complaint about epilepsy. Job opportunities were lost. Most of all, my spontaneous freedom's been lost, like a prison. It's just a mile's walk to restaurants, banks, and grocers, but a backpack won't let me buy much, and on a rainy day, they might just as well be on the moon! I've had notions that the medic-alert bracelet on my wrist was as wretched as the ankle bracelets worn by paroled convicts.

Maybe our call for freedom is so great that we don't care about the dangers to us if we have a car accident. But we have to remember that it might be people we love who are our passengers, or total strangers on the sidewalks, or in other vehicles who might be victimized by us. I've read testimonials of drunk drivers who've killed someone while they survived, and they're haunted by extreme guilt.

Seizures and car accidents

There's a man I've known in Georgia for 15 years, epileptic, and at least 7 times during those 5 years he's been suspended for 6 months, gotten back his license, only to lose it again within several weeks. I know a guy in California, where license suspensions are only 3 months. He's been suspended several times in 4 years.

I also know a woman who's been seizure-free for over a year, and then drove her car into the front of a store. Barely a year later, she drove into someone else's home!

I've made the decision not to drive

I use Uber and Lyft when I can, but the expense is painful. Therefore, I've gotten acquainted with many of the retired people in my neighborhood who might be able to drive me on errands when needed. Or on days when I substitute teach, one neighbor picks me up for $15 (1/3 the expense those companies charge at that time of day.)

Be creative. Be outreaching. I'm careful not to wear out my welcome with any individual and do what I can to help with their needs in their homes or yards.

But deciding to drive somewhere won't be the last decision of my life.

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