Wait for the green light from your doctor
Getting a driver's license is a significant moment for any young person: it represents freedom of movement and independence. It should also represent the serious responsibility of practising road safety. If you have epilepsy, this responsibility is even greater, and you should make the decision about whether it is safe for you to drive after careful consideration of both your doctor's advice and the law of the land.
The issue of being able to drive is perhaps particularly pressing to South African epileptics. In this country, where public transport systems are often plagued by crime and are not conveniently organised for residential areas far from city centres, driving is a necessary part of everyday life for many people.
What's the legal situation?
The law regarding driving and epilepsy differs quite considerably in different parts of the world. In many countries, drivers must have been free of seizures for a specific period before they can drive legally. In some countries, it is illegal to drive even if a person has only ever had one seizure.
This is not the case in South Africa, however. In this country, you are not permitted to drive if you have uncontrolled epilepsy. Apart from this, deciding whether you should drive or not is left to the individual concerned and his or her doctor. The decision is based on the type and severity of seizures, and the degree to which they are controlled. Studies have shown that people with uncontrolled seizures do have an increased risk of a car accident; people whose seizures are controlled, however, do not have a significantly increased risk.
In general, a person with epilepsy who has been seizure-free for two years is regarded as being safe to drive i.e. for each seizure that occurs, you should wait two years before driving again. In each individual case, however, the physician may recommend a longer or shorter waiting period. For example, if you usually have an aura that reliably gives you sufficient "early warning" of an impending seizure, then your doctor may deem it safe for you to drive even if you had your last seizure more recently than two years ago.
Although people who have only had one seizure are not defined as having epilepsy, it is recommended that they wait at least six months before getting behind the wheel again, and then only after a medical examination and normal EEG and CT scan. If your examination results are not normal, you should wait at least 12 months before driving. Anyone who has had a serious brain injury, illness or brain surgery should follow medical advice about when they can resume driving, as some of these conditions can increase the risk for seizures.
Even if your seizures are controlled and your doctor has given you the OK to drive, it's important to always remember the following:
- If you change or stop your medication suddenly, stop driving until your doctor advises you it's safe to be on the road again.
- If you have a seizure for the first time in years, stop driving and consult your doctor.
- Don't drive when you're tired, stressed or ill, as you're more likely to have a seizure at such times.
- Don't drink and drive.
Being unable to drive because your seizures are not sufficiently well controlled, or because you are waiting for a suitable period to elapse since your last seizure, can be very frustrating and a blow to your sense of self-sufficiency. But remember there are other ways to stay mobile: explore public transportation options, or organise a lift club to share costs and a driver with other people in your area who can't drive or don't have transport. For further information and ideas on staying as mobile and independent as you can, contact your nearest branch of Epilepsy South Africa. (See Support).