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Driving with Ms. Epilepsy

Seizure? Hardly even know her! This is the second instalment in our three-part “Driving with a Disability” series. Epilepsy is one of the more common, yet misunderstood, disabilities in Canada. In some provinces, you have to be seizure-free for one year before being allowed to drive again. Here, we offer a primer on what Epilepsy is, how it affects you and what is expected when it comes to driving.

For most Canadians, having a drivers licence is considered a rite of passage, a privilege and for many it’s a necessity. As a driver you climb behind the wheel, start the engine and head out. But have you ever stopped to think about the drivers around you? Who are they and do they face any special challenges as drivers?

For people with ADHD, epilepsy and other disabilities the challenges in getting and keeping a driver’s licence can be enormous. Most of the actions that drivers take for granted are really very special and should be appreciated as such. Epilepsy is no exception.

This can and does happen with epilepsy when on the road

Epilepsy is a disorder of the central nervous system and causes sudden, short and uncontrolled changes to brain functions. These changes may cause strange sensations, emotions, and behaviour, or sometimes convulsions or seizures. Epilepsy is non discriminatory and can affect anyone regardless race, sex and even animals are susceptible to it.

Anyone may develop epilepsy at any time, however children 10 and under and adults over the age of 65 are more vulnerable. In most cases the cause is unknown. One out of every 100 Canadians has epilepsy and while it is controllable it is incurable.

Many famous people had/have epilepsy including: artist Michelangelo, Roman emperor Julius Caesar, writer Charles Dickens, scientists Alfred Nobel and Sir Isaac Newton, singer Neil Young and actor Richard Burton just to name a few.

There are over 40 different types of seizures and they are usually classified into one of two types:

Partial seizures occur in the seizure focus part of the brain and may or many not alter consciousness or awareness. The two most common forms are simple partial seizures and complex partial seizures (or “psychomotor”, which is also the most frequent seizure type).

Generalized seizures occur when widespread electrical discharge involves both sides of the brain at once. Generalized seizures alter consciousness. They can be convulsive or non-convulsive. The two most common forms are generalized absence seizures (“petite mal”) and tonic-clonic (“grand mal”) seizures.

Partial seizures last for usually less than two minutes; the person remains alert and can remember what happened. Complex partial seizures impair a person’s consciousness; there is no memory of it and lasts for three-to-four minutes. Later on, the person may be tired or confused and may not be fully functioning for hours.

Generalized absence seizures occur mostly in children. Awareness and responsiveness are impaired and the seizure usually last for two-to-10 seconds. With Tonic-clonic seizures the person will cry out, muscles will stiffen, they will lose consciousness as the body extremities jerk and twitch.

It typically lasts from three-to-five minutes and the person usually wakes up confused or disoriented.

Epilepsy can often be treated through drug therapy with anti-seizure medications - sometimes called anticonvulsants - (AEDs), a special diet regimen, or surgery. The drugs affect the central nervous system and possible side effects may include double or blurry vision, fatigue and sleepiness.

Epilepsy and driving

In Canada there are two regulations for drivers with epilepsy that apply to all Canadian provinces and territories:

By law, drivers must report to the Ministry of Transportation any medical condition that may interfere with their ability to drive safely.

People with epilepsy must have their seizures controlled either on or off medication for a specific period of time before they can drive.

Additionally, in Newfoundland and Labrador, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island it is mandatory (discretionary in Nova Scotia) that physicians report to the department of motor vehicles anyone with a medical condition that might impair driving ability.

As a driver you will always be concerned about safety: yours and others. We hope that people with special challenges will do the correct thing and self-declare. However it is heartening to know that the government has additional measures in place to ensure driver road safety, not only for you, but also for those people living with special challenges.

Much, much more in the print addition of Auto Atlantic.
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