For many adults, the ability to drive an automobile is one of the most important factors in ensuring quality of life.  Driving allows one to engage in a wide variety of life activities, including employment, family, social, and community activities that are central to one’s physical and emotional health, identity, happiness, and enjoyment of life.  But a concussion can cause a constellation of symptoms and deficits that can significantly impair our ability to drive.  Because driving can be so central to our lives, though, and because the symptoms and deficits caused by a concussion can be hard to observe and assess, we sometimes return to the road sooner than we should, putting ourselves, our passengers, and others on the road at risk.

What is a concussion?

A “concussion” is a type of traumatic brain injury – or TBI – usually caused by a bump, blow, or jolt to the head (direct impact).  In many cases of TBI, though, there is no direct blow to the head and no external signs of trauma.  Indeed, a concussion can also be caused by a hit or jolt to the body that causes the head and brain to move rapidly back and forth or side to side inside the skull.  This is called an acceleration-deceleration injury. This sudden movement can cause the brain to bounce around or twist inside the skull, creating chemical changes in the brain and sometimes stretching and damaging brain cells.

What are the symptoms of a concussion?

A concussion is characterized by an alteration of brain function that can manifest in a variety of physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms including:

  • Confusion
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Headache
  • Vision disturbances
  • Dizziness, impaired balance
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Memory loss
  • Ringing ears
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty accomplishing multi-step tasks
  • Reduced thought-processing speed
  • Word-finding difficulties
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Loss of smell or taste
  • Agitation, short temper, intolerance of others
  • Attention deficit
  • Fatigue, low energy
  • Depressed mood

Depending on the severity of the injury, as well as a host of other factors, including the location of the injury, access to healthcare, and one’s pre-injury health, intelligence, and age, these symptoms can be temporary, or they can impair everyday functioning for an extended period of time.

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What are the risks of driving after a concussion?

Driving is a highly complex task involving the coordination of healthy physical, perceptual, cognitive, and emotional systems.  TBI can adversely affect all of these systems in a variety of ways.  A concussion can result in diminished hazard perception, poorer judgment, slower reaction time, less patience, reduced attention and concentration, and diminished physical coordination, any and all of which greatly increase the risk of an auto collision and injury not only to the driver, but to passengers and others on the road.  And studies have shown that one can still have considerable ongoing cognitive, psychological, emotional, and behavioral issues stemming from the TBI that impair your ability to drive even after the physical symptoms have subsided and you appear physically “normal”.  The combination of driving and concussion is simply ill-advised.

Teen drivers are particularly vulnerable

For teens, obtaining a driver’s license and starting to drive is a rite of passage that can boost confidence, self-esteem and independence and can broaden the opportunities and perspectives of younger adults.  But studies show a frightening reality.  Teen drivers (ages 16-19) are more likely to underestimate potentially dangerous situations, more prone to distraction, more likely to speed, more likely to follow too closely, and more likely to make critical errors in decision-making that can lead to serious crashes.  Indeed, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for American teens, and teen drivers are more likely to be involved in auto collisions than any other age group.   In light of these facts, teen drivers can be particularly vulnerable and less able to compensate for the deficits caused by a concussion.

When is it safe to return to driving?

Studies suggest that one should not attempt to drive within the first 24 hours after suffering a concussion.  But because a concussion affects each individual differently, there is no hard-and-fast rule for when it is safe to return to driving after a concussion.  A TBI can cause a variety of symptoms affecting physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral function. It is important to be candid with your physicians about all of your symptoms (including perceptions from family and friends).  Your physician may then require a comprehensive, multi-disciplinary assessment, including physical, visual, cognitive, neuropsychological, and emotional function.

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In Virginia, you are required to self-report to DMV any medical condition that might impair your ability to drive safely, even temporarily.  Specifically, you must provide DMV with a statement of the condition from your physician, who might recommend that your driving privileges be suspended pending treatment, further evaluation, and recovery.  If your physician is uncertain whether your condition will impair your ability to drive, he/she may recommend that you take a driver’s knowledge and/or road skills test to assess your ability to drive safely.  DMV will evaluate the medical information provided, as well as your driving history and record, and may ask for further medical testing, regular updates from your providers, and may ask you to be evaluated by a driver rehabilitation specialist before returning to the road.

There is no doubt that losing the ability to drive can be daunting and can create real hardship.  But the problems that arise when your ability to drive is impaired can be solved, or at least dealt with and overcome, with the right help.  I’m reminded of a quote from the “Sound of Music” that goes something like “when one door closes, somewhere he opens a window”.  While the need to get back behind the wheel can seem pressing, the risks to life and limb in getting back on the road too soon are far too great, particularly for our teens.  It is best to play it safe, be patient, take heart, and make sure that you are, or your teen driver is, truly and completely recovered before attempting it.

About the Bergeron Law Firm

Bergeron Law is a personal injury practice serving the Northern Virginia area.  Our mission is to provide all our clients with the highest quality of legal representation and unsurpassed dedication and customer service.

Steve Bergeron understands that a successful attorney-client relationship depends on his ability to understand each client’s needs and objectives.  Bergeron Law will be there for you with the information, advice, and advocacy you need to help you get back to your life.

For more information about traumatic brain injury, concussion, and personal injury, contact our office today at 703.813.6460, or visit our website: