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Narcolepsy and Driving

Medically reviewed by Evelyn O. Berman, M.D.
Written by Amy Isler, RN
Posted on December 28, 2021

Narcolepsy and its accompanying symptom of excessive daytime sleepiness pose a driving safety risk to both the driver and others on the road.

Research on narcolepsy and driving is very limited. Existing studies show that more than 50 percent of people with narcolepsy have fallen asleep while driving, and one-third of those drivers have been involved in a motor vehicle accident because of their sleep disorder.

However, by knowing their limits, people with narcolepsy can minimize the safety risks involved and still be able to keep their driver’s license.

One MyNarcolepsyTeam member shared these thoughts on driving: “l was very concerned about hurting someone else. But now my doctor has me on medication that makes driving a lot less risky. I'm very excited to be able to go to the store and pharmacy.”

How Narcolepsy Affects Driving

Narcolepsy is a disorder of the sleep-wake cycle that causes daytime sleepiness, sleep attacks, possible loss of consciousness, and cataplexy (sudden muscle weakness). These symptoms of narcolepsy can lead to unsafe driving.

Safety

Driving while simply drowsy can greatly increase your risk of being involved in a car accident. Even a short second of inattention while driving can put you and others in danger. In 2019, drowsy driving was the cause of 1.9 percent of total driving fatalities in the U.S.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that being sleepy while driving can make drivers less attentive, less able to make decisions, and more inclined to have a slow reaction time. The CDC also states that driving while sleepy is similar to drunk driving and can compromise a person’s ability to drive safely.

A MyNarcolepsyTeam member shared, “Highway driving became very difficult without conversation and sometimes even with conversation. There were many days I had no recollection of leaving the house or driving to work. I just sort of woke up already there. I sometimes wonder if I caused any incidents.”

Legality of Driving With Narcolepsy

Driving laws for people diagnosed with medical conditions that can cause a sporadic lapse of consciousness (LOC), such as narcolepsy, epilepsy, and obstructive sleep apnea, can differ from state to state.

Some state vehicle licensing agencies make it mandatory to report a condition that alters a person’s ability to drive. Other states are less strict and require self-reporting, or no reporting at all.

Most states do not list narcolepsy as a reason to revoke a driver's license. But some states may enforce driving restrictions or different levels of medical probation, depending on how well the medical condition is controlled.

State-specific LOC disorder driving laws vary and can include:

  • Self-reporting on your driver’s license application
  • Mandated reporting from doctors after diagnosing someone with an LOC condition
  • Vague requirements in which the law can be interpreted in different ways
  • No questions about medical conditions on the driver’s license application

The Narcolepsy Network provides a helpful interactive map that details the driving laws in each state that concern narcolepsy.

Impact of Getting Your License Revoked

Having your driver’s license revoked or restricted because of a medical condition can cause consequences in a person’s quality of life.

Since many areas of the United States are car-dependent, the loss of a driver’s license can have a far-reaching negative effect. In areas where public transportation options are not feasible, being unable to drive can make it difficult to access employment and social and community activities. Being unable to drive can also make it difficult to fulfill family obligations, like taking children to and from school, and doing chores like grocery shopping.

The loss of a driver’s license can also have health consequences, including an increase in depression and a decrease in your overall well-being.

One MyNarcolepsyTeam member said this about their experience giving up driving: “I can’t drive. My independence and life as I know it is over. No more driving, swimming, or outdoor activities by myself, and I’m a very independent person.”

Tips for Safe Driving

Being diagnosed with narcolepsy does not mean you will automatically lose your driver’s license.

Because narcolepsy is a rare condition, there is neither a lot of research nor a lot of data to determine what works best for decreasing the driving risk for those diagnosed with narcolepsy.

Neurologists and medical professionals typically use the Maintenance of Wakefulness Test as a screening tool to determine if someone is at increased risk of drowsy driving. They have also identified several habits and strategies to help decrease driving risk. These include:

  • Taking naps on a regular schedule
  • Driving shorter distances at a time
  • Breaking for naps during long road trips
  • Avoiding driving after heavy meals
  • Avoiding sedating medications before or while driving
  • Avoiding alcohol intake
  • Taking wakefulness-promoting medication (modafinil) before driving

A MyNarcolepsyTeam member shared, “I find listening to NPR and voices talking keep me more awake than music.”

Another team member reported, “I still drive, but not for long distances and no more than an hour on a good day. I can sense the sleep coming on, so I pull over and sleep.”

People with narcolepsy who combine medical treatment, behavioral strategies, and thoughtful limits may be able to drive safely.

You’re Not Alone

MyNarcolepsyTeam is the social network for people with narcolepsy and their loved ones. A community of more than 8,000 members comes together to ask questions, give advice, and share their experiences of life with narcolepsy.

Have you had to give up your driver’s license? How do you keep yourself from falling asleep while driving? Share your experience in the comments below or on MyNarcolepsyTeam. Your story may help others.

Posted on December 28, 2021
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Evelyn O. Berman, M.D. is a neurology and pediatric specialist and treats disorders of the brain in children. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Learn more about her here.
Amy Isler, RN is a registered nurse with over six years of experience as a credentialed school nurse. Learn more about her here.

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