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Our View: Seizure accidents hard to prevent

Published: Thursday, May 29, 2014 11:40 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, May 30, 2014 12:21 a.m. CDT

Another traffic crash in which the driver at fault is suspected of having a seizure has occurred in Sycamore, again bringing some focus on the state’s laws for drivers with seizure disorders. 

In 2011, Patricia Schmidt, who had a seizure disorder but had been cleared by her neurologist to drive, caused a crash at Peace Road and Route 23 that killed two young people, Tim Getzelman and Alexis Weber.

Early Sunday morning, a truck delivering portable toilets crashed into the front of Taxco Restaurant in downtown Sycamore. The driver, who was en route to Hampshire, told police he probably had a seizure while behind the wheel. 

Schmidt was acquitted of reckless homicide and aggravated reckless driving in a high-profile criminal trial this year; Sycamore police said they probably will not file any charges against the driver of the truck. 

After Schmidt’s acquittal in April, family members of Getzelman and Weber said they wanted to see changes in the state’s laws for people with seizure disorders. Seizures are most commonly associated with epilepsy, but can occur for a number of different reasons and in six different types, with the most extreme causing loss of consciousness and convulsions.

In Illinois, there are no requirements for doctors to report patients who have seizure disorders to state authorities, and drivers need not wait out any seizure-free period before they can regain driving privileges. Drivers are screened through a medical questionnaire administered by the Secretary of State when they apply for a license.

According to the Epilepsy Foundation, Illinois drivers who indicate they have epilepsy or other seizure conditions must submit a medical report completed by a doctor that states they are OK to drive. They also must agree to remain under a doctor’s care and follow prescribed treatment.

A state Medical Advisory Board makes decisions on whether people who may have seizures can receive driver’s licenses. The board also can request periodic medical updates on drivers.

Illinois takes a less-restrictive approach than many neighboring states, most of which require some kind of seizure-free period before allowing drivers back on the road. Neighboring Iowa, Kentucky, Wisconsin and Missouri all require drivers be seizure-free for three or six months. New York requires a seizure-free year with some exceptions, and California mandates three to six months.

Only neighboring Indiana mirrors Illinois’ policy.

This appears to be an issue that there is no perfect way to police, however. For one, a first seizure – or other debilitating medical crises such as a heart attack – can occur anywhere, to people of any age, without warning.

For another, driving is such a vital part of people’s lives that threatening to take that privilege away for an indefinite period if they seek treatment could be a disincentive to people seeking help.

Our state relies on doctors and board members to make determinations on which people with seizure conditions are fit to drive and which are not. We trust doctors to be responsible and make judgments with the best interests of patient and society in mind, but they also seem to have minimal liability if someone they have cleared to drive later causes a crash. 

People with epilepsy and other seizure conditions should not be disqualified automatically and for all time from driving, although some may choose to forgo it because of the risks it could pose to their own safety.

However, a person demonstrating that they have gone three months, or even six months, without having any seizure problems seems a reasonable requirement that would protect not only patients themselves, but other people who use the roadways.

This requirement, however, could be circumvented by someone determined not to give up driving privileges.

It is not a simple problem to solve, and unfortunately, circumstances have shown it can have deadly consequences.

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