Physicians: Report patients subject to epileptic seizures to the division of motor vehicles immediately or a) pay a fine of up to $300, b) go to jail for up to 90 days, or c) both.
Then the division must cancel the patients’ driver’s licenses and tell them they can appeal. They’re guilty until they can prove themselves seizure-free.
Threatening to punish non-reporting physicians is one way of dealing with epileptic drivers, the main target of House Bill 1068. It was introduced on, Wednesday, the legislature’s opening day, by Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose.
Whether it would be effective or fair is another matter.
Coram was motivated to sponsor the bill by a horrific auto accident that killed a family of five in Thornton almost three years ago. A woman who was subject to occasional seizures sped down Grant Street in Thornton in a big SUV at more than 75 mph on Feb. 17, 2011. It struck another car, hit the median and went airborne. The SUV landed on a pickup containing Randy Stollsteimer, his wife Crystaldawn and their three young sons, then came to rest in a mattress store.
All five Stollsteimers died on impact. The SUV driver, Monica Chavez, and her two children suffered only minor injuries. She was charged with criminal negligence but was acquitted by a jury in June 2012.
Chavez “was told not to drive and continued driving and continued having seizures, and the last one cost five fatalities,” said Coram.
According to testimony Chavez, after suffering a seizure in 2006. was told not to drive until she saw a neurologist. She didn’t see one, kept driving and suffered a similar seizure in 2010.
“We’re extremely concerned about the bill on many levels,” said Gail Pundsack, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Colorado. The way the bill is written, she noted, it would affect the daily lives of not only epileptics, but “thousands and thousands” of people suffering from diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
Under current Colorado law, driver’s license applicants must disclose any disability that would cause a lapse of consciousness. There is no set period that the applicant must be seizure-free. The motor vehicle division is entitled to seek a medical opinion if it reasonably believes the applicant is unable to drive safely. No medical person is subject to civil or criminal action whether they recommend granting or refusing a driver’s license, provided they have acted in good faith.
Alfred Gilchrist, chief executive officer of the Colorado Medical Society, said the CMS has not yet studied the bill or taken a position on it.
He conceded that physicians are required to report evidence of child or elder abuse. “Those are all issues that have had a public policy debate and the legislature has come to a conclusion on them.” But epilepsy presents a different fact situation and must be carefully considered.
“Generally speaking,” he said, “there a great reluctance on the part of the medical profession to be reporting confidential patient information.”
A report by ABC News said only six states currently require physicians to tell the department of motor vehicles when a patient is diagnosed with seizures.
Making reporting to the state a mandatory requirement “may have a strongly negative impact upon the patient-physician relationship, and may ultimately provide no greater safety benefits to the public,” said the epilepsy foundation in a statement. What’s more, the patient “may feel compelled to withhold important medical information.”
It also fears that doctors will face “undeserved liability” for a patient’s accidents, “even when a physician has followed all applicable laws honestly and capably.”
“If a physician tells a patient not to drive, most of those patients aren’t going to drive,” said Pundsack in an interview. “This is a shoot-and-then-aim type of bill.”
There are a lot more drunk drivers having accidents than epileptics, she noted. Under the principle of this bill, “a person who walks into a liquor store and buys a bottle of whatever, is not able to drive and is guilty before they get behind the wheel.”
Laws against epileptics driving have loosened with the improvement of anti-epilepsy medicines. Retired lobbyist Diane Rees, an epileptic, remembers having to take a taxi between her employer’s office and the capitol for six years, until the law was liberalized in the 1980s.
The roads are already full of drivers with no licenses, suspended licenses and/or no insurance. They’re not supposed to drive, but they do. Perhaps some epileptics drive against doctor’s orders now but if this bill were passed, more patients might fail to tell their doctors about seizures. Doctors, just to protect themselves, might feel compelled to tell the motor vehicle division about all sorts of patients with heart conditions and diabetes.
Those patients would then have their licenses suspended and the burden would be on them to get driving privileges back.
Longtime Rocky Mountain News political columnist Peter Blake now writes Thursdays for CompleteColorado.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org You may re-publish his work at no charge and without further permission; please give full credit to Peter Blake and www.CompleteColorado.com