Medical worthiness of drivers scrutinized

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A new Medical Advisory Board will provide the Secretary of State’s office with data about medical conditions that affect a person’s driving ability in an effort to increase highway safety.

“Continual advances in medical technology and increasingly complex medical cases demand that we take a proactive approach to protecting Michigan drivers,” Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land said.

The board will be asked to recommend physical, mental and vision standards for drivers, advise on ways to improve how drivers are evaluated, enhance training of driver assessment staff and provide analysis to the department about complex medical cases.

Kelly Chesney, Secretary of State press secretary, said the medical field is constantly evolving.

“The reason the board was established was so that experts could help us understand if someone’s treatment is impacting their ability to drive,” she said. “There’s new therapies that can improve a driver’s response time.

“Doctors might know whether a new prescription will impact a driver’s ability to judge distances.”

The nine-member board consists of a psychiatrist, internal medicine specialist, optometrist, ophthalmologist, rehabilitation specialist, neurologist, addiction specialist, occupational therapist and gerontologist. The Michigan State Medical Society recommended the members, who are all volunteers.

David Fox, public relations director for the MSMS, said that some health situations will be of particular concern to the board.

“There are a variety of conditions that they will look at,” he said. “Some particular illnesses include diabetes, epilepsy, dementia and others that involve a person’s motor skills.

“With diabetes, a low-sugar situation could be extremely disorienting for a driver.”

Fox said that physicians will also benefit from the board’s work.

“For a number of years, there have been resolutions drafted that talk about physicians being put in an awkward spot with patients,” he said. “There were concerns about liability for the physician. If a physician recommends that a patient doesn’t drive but the patient ignores their advice, is the physician still liable?

“There was a growing interest and concern among physicians about having input about driving rules,” he said.

Jack Peet, traffic safety manager for AAA Michigan in Grand Rapids, agreed that physicians are in a tough position when asked to assess a patient’s driving ability.

“Doctors have a difficult situation when dealing with any type of driving problem as a result of a medical condition,” he said. “The board will allow doctors to explore different treatment options and give them the resource options to ask, ‘Where should we send this person to get assessed?’”

Anne Readett, manager of the state Office of Highway Safety Planning, said she supports the Secretary of State’s efforts.

“It’s certainly an important thing to recognize how vital it is to ensure that people who are driving have the skills to do so safely,” she said. “We have a changing environment that certainly makes it more complex from a licensing standpoint.”

In 2008, the Secretary of State’s office conducted more than 11,000 medically related driver exams and received more than 4,700 evaluation requests from law enforcement personnel, physicians and relatives of drivers.

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