Concussions affect all aspects of life and can be so frustrating. Not only does the patient not feel like themselves, but morale can really worsen when we take away activities, they love such as playing video games, spending hours on their screen, and driving privileges. One of the questions we hear most commonly from teens who have suffered a concussion is “When can I drive again?” “While there is not enough research on this topic to make a standardized and widely accepted recommendation, it’s important for healthcare providers to address return to driving on a patient-by-patient basis because of the potential danger to both the patient and the public should they return to driving too soon.” Factors that we consider in answering this question include:
1. Current symptoms
Most patients we see experience concussion symptoms for approximately 3 weeks on average. Symptoms vary but commonly include trouble with concentration and attention, memory difficulty, delayed reaction time, and impairments in visual perception. These skills are all essential in the complex process of driving. To complicate matters, “concussion patients may continue to experience cognitive deficits even once asymptomatic.” So, it is essential to determine the extent of symptoms and cognitive deficits before allowing a teen to return to driving.
2. Reaction time
We are all aware that safe driving requires focus! We should not be distracted, fatigued, or impaired when getting behind the wheel. Possessing the ability to process information quickly and respond appropriately is of utmost importance as well. We call this, reaction time. Almost all of our post-concussion patients have some delay in reaction time. Research shows that those with a concussion “took an additional 25 feet to stop a car and were .45 seconds slower to identify traffic conflicts.” To clear a teen for driving we always assess reaction time. One of the tools we can use to assess this is the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Test (ImPACT).
3. Other factors to consider
It is important to consider other options for transportation. While recovering from a concussion, if the teen can ride with a parent, rather than driving himself/herself, this is always recommended. When there is no other option for the teen but to drive, and we are assured that reaction time is acceptable and concussion symptoms are gone or minimal, we still recommend additional precautions. These include, “avoiding night driving, avoiding additional distractions (driving other people, listening to the radio, etc.), avoiding high-traffic times, and avoiding driving while fatigued.”