Narcolepsy & Driving Laws

Falling asleep at the wheel can have devastating consequences.
••• wrecked car image by hazel proudlove from

Narcolepsy is a disorder that causes "periods of extreme daytime sleepiness," according to the National Institutes of Health. It can also cause muscular weakness during waking hours. Although there is no cure for narcolepsy, sufferers may use medication and therapy to control their symptoms and function in everyday life. Some states require drivers to be symptom-free for a certain period of time before they may drive; others leave the matter to individuals, hoping they will responsibly refrain from driving while drowsy.


The National Institute of Neurological Diseases and Stroke estimated in 2010 that one in every 2,000 people suffer from narcolepsy, a number that translates to more than 135,000 Americans. According to a 1997 National Sleep Foundation survey, narcoleptics commonly take "involuntary 10- to 20-minute two- to three-hour intervals throughout the day"--a clear danger on the road. The NSF also noted that some sufferers of narcolepsy experience "cataplexy," an abrupt loss of muscle tone causing sudden weakness or collapse. Approximately 100,000 accidents are caused each year by drowsy driving, though it is impossible to know for sure how many of those crashes were due to narcolepsy. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, these crashes result in more than 1,500 deaths and 71,000 injuries every year. Some states have cracked down on those with diagnosed narcolepsy in an attempt to nip at these statistics.

State Laws

Drowsy driving laws vary from state to state. States like Colorado or Louisiana don't have laws requiring narcoleptics to be identified when seeking driver's licenses, but in some other states, there are requirements for how long someone must be symptom free before being licensed to drive. For instance, Kentucky applicants must be symptom free or incident free for 90 days; in New York and Indiana, a full year of being symptom free is required. In many of these states, breaking this law is charged as reckless driving. Many of the states that impose a time period also require doctors to inform the state whenever a case of narcolepsy is identified, while some only require reporting when drowsy driving causes a violation or crash.

Each state reserves the right to suspend a driver's license or apply restrictions on the driver for reckless driving, but there is an appeals process that allows drivers and their doctors to prove the episodes are under control. Rather than suspending licenses of narcoleptics, some states apply restrictions, such as no highway driving, no night driving, or no driving during certain high-traffic periods.

What You Can Do

There is no cure for narcolepsy, but treatments are available that may bring symptoms under control. See your doctor for drug intervention; stimulants are usually the prescription of choice. Strive to get a full dose of REM sleep every night. Proper "sleep hygiene" can also be effective. This includes setting a sleep schedule, avoiding shift work and alcohol, and taking short, scheduled naps every day.

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