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A wrongful death lawsuit in California prompts the question: Should Alzheimer’s patients be forbidden to drive?

According to the Daily Mail, 85-year-old Lorraine Sullivan turned left into oncoming traffic on the way home from a May 2010 grocery trip. A Mercedes slammed into her passenger side, where her boyfriend of 30 years, William Powers, was seated. Powers died six weeks later from injuries he sustained in the car accident.

His family recently sued Dr. Arthur Daigneault, the internist who treated Sullivan for dementia for two years.

“California law requires doctors to look out for patients with ‘disorders characterized by lapses of consciousness’ and report them to local health authorities, who in turn notify the Department of Motor Vehicles,” the Morris Daily Herald reported. Those disorders include Alzheimer’s disease.

A jury found Daigneault “in no way responsible” for Powers’ death after his defense attorney argued that there was no evidence indicating Sullivan’s dementia caused the accident.

The fact remains that Sullivan told Daigneault she was having memory problems, according to the Daily Mail. So should a person suffering symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease be allowed to continue driving?

A 2008 study showed that driver’s with Alzheimer’s disease got into more accidents and performed worse on road tests than people the same age who did not have the disease. However, researchers concluded that “some individuals with very mild dementia can continue to drive safely for extended periods of time.” They recommended regular follow-up assessments of those individuals.

A study published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society likewise suggested that Alzheimer’s patients may be able to drive for up to three years after they’ve been diagnosed.

Unlike California, Ohio does not require a doctor to report patients who may be too impaired to drive. But a doctor treating an 85-year-old Cleveland man for prostate cancer wrote 12 years ago, “Physicians should nonetheless report impaired drivers who clearly endanger themselves and/or the safety of the public and use their best judgment in determining when to report.”

This doctor’s patient had confided that he was having memory problems and got lost on his way to his appointment less than a mile from home. When she’d suggested that he take a driver’s test, he balked, as most people would.

“What if that test doesn’t turn out so good?” he asked. “I’ve got to be able to get out of my apartment. Got to be able to get to the grocery and to the drug store.”

She ultimately convinced him to involve his son in Arizona.

The Mayo Clinic suggests that relatives of Alzheimer’s patients prevent their loved one from driving when he or she:

  • Exhibits trouble driving to or from a familiar place;
  • Isn’t sure when to turn or change lanes;
  • Confuses gas and brake pedals;
  • Doesn’t heed traffic lights or signs;
  • Has trouble making decisions;
  • Doesn’t adhere to an appropriate speed; and/or
  • Drives over or rubs the curb.

Of course, some drivers roll past stop signs without suffering from dementia. "If you're not sure whether it's safe for your loved one to drive," the Mayo Clinic adds, "ask yourself whether you feel safe ridingin a vehicle driven by the person who has Alzheimer's — or if you'd feel safe having your loved one drive your children or others."

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