Yes, this is me with two of my cousins, getting my very first car for my 16th birthday, and yes, I rocked that vest. When you turn 16 and get a driver’s license, there is an incredible feeling of independence that comes with that first time you are in a car alone. Even if it is just driving to the grocery store to pick up something your parents need, you are out there on your own! But the feeling that comes with knowing you can simply get in a car and drive to wherever you want to go is soon taken for granted…until it is taken away.
This is a bit of a tricky subject, but one that needs to be discussed. A few weeks ago I had a discussion about driving with my Like Minded Group – the TBI support group and yoga class we started. I asked folks if they felt they were safe drivers, and how long after their injury they returned to driving. The answers varied, but the theme was fairly common – they all started driving as soon as possible, and probably before they were ready.
One of my friends confessed that for months after his injury he drove in a very impaired state and didn’t tell anyone he was having trouble. He feared that if he told his doctors or therapists that his license would be taken away. The biggest issues with driving after TBI can be slow reaction time, decreased peripheral vision, and ability to maintain focused attention. There really is very little difference between driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol and driving with brain injury. You are impaired. Also, similar to drunk driving, you are unlikely to realize how impaired you are and make a good decision about your ability to safely drive.
Josh and I had an interesting discussion about driving a few nights ago. He was out of town for a bike race over the weekend, and my friends were heading up to do a modified “Round Mountain Ladder” workout on Saturday. I thought it would be “fun”, and it was only an hour drive from my house. Normally, I would have asked someone for a ride, but no one was going from my area. I thought to myself this would be a good opportunity to try driving a farther. It would be my longest drive since the TBI, but I legitimately thought I could handle it (this is where my husband chimes in and points out that I still am terrible at self-assessment, which would be an accurate statement).
Long story short, I couldn’t handle it. By the time I got to the trailhead I had to sit in the car for a few minutes before I dared try to stand up. When I did finally get out, I had to hold onto the car to avoid falling over. I would have instantly failed a roadside sobriety test. Fine motor control, and general motor control for that matter, were fairly compromised by that point and I couldn’t even work the zipper on my pack. I got some “good job trying to drive” sort of comments from my friends, which I generally agreed with, and they helped me get my gear together. The first part of the “run” was hiking, so I had some time to pull myself together, managing not to fall off the trail, but I felt pretty awful for most of the day and cut the run short. Clearly I’m not ready to drive that far, but I thought I was brave enough to give it a shot, and friends were kind enough to get me back home.
When my husband got back, and we were talking about the weekend, he had a much different reaction. His response was roughly “What the *#%^ were you thinking? You could’ve been killed, or killed somebody else.” As soon as he said it, I felt defensive and angry, but only because I knew he was right. It is good that I tried to work a short shift at the clinic. It is good that I am pushing myself with vision therapy. It is good that I’m out there challenging myself with the running. But driving a car is not a place to push the limits of your brain function that far. The consequences are too high. You would never tell a drunk driver “good job trying”.
There are a few programs where you can be tested and told when it is safe to return to driving, but this is voluntary. Through all my doctors visits, no one ever told me not to drive, I simply couldn’t drive. I couldn’t physically keep my eyes open in a moving vehicle, so it wasn’t even a decision. Several TBI friends have told me they don’t want to do a program like this because they are afraid they would no longer be allowed to drive. While this is an understandable fear, the problem is that if we are told we shouldn’t be driving, it is because it isn’t safe for us, or everyone else on the road.
Independence is something we all want. I don’t know anyone that wants to rely on other people all the time. For now, I will stick with driving around town, staying off the highways, not driving after dark, and hoping I can bum rides off of friends and family. Last summer I didn’t go a lot of places because I had a hard time even being a passenger in a car for an hour. So while I still may not be able to drive for an hour, I’ve come a long way in the last year. Driving isn’t going to get easier if I don’t do it, but maybe when I’m really comfortable with 30 minutes I can try for 40 minutes, instead of jumping up to an hour. By next summer who knows…
36 days until Never Summer 100K