Should you answer yes or now on your license renewal form? There are a few things to consider first.
Advising the Department of Motor Vehicles in California that you have diabetes will not necessarily result in a loss of your driving license. In most cases, it will not.
However, it will normally cause the DMV to ask you to have you and your physician fill out a standard medical form it will review. If the DMV becomes concerned that you are an unsafe driver after reviewing the answers provided, your license may be suspended; or, you may be ordered to attend a hearing to answer additional questions about your diabetes.
Problems are likely to arise at this stage. Doctors are not normally paid to fill out these forms. Doctors do not always spend a lot of time answering these forms and may not fully understand how to fill them out. Many of the questions on the standard DMV medical form are confusing – to attorneys and physicians both.
It is important to ask the physician to let you or your attorney review the form before it is submitted to the DMV. The purpose of this review is not to ask the physician to misrepresent anything. Rather, it is to make certain improper answers are not accidentally given; or that confusing answers that might lead to a suspension are not given without a full and proper explanation. For example, a person with type two diabetes may be having trouble managing his blood sugars, but that does not necessarily make him an unsafe driver. These issues need to be explained adequately so that the DMV does not suspend a driver’s license without a proper medical basis to do so.
It is important to remember that serious danger and expense can be avoided at this stage. Discussing possible problems with a qualified physician – preferably an endocrinologist – can avoid dangerous driving errors; learning how to avoid hypoglycemia while driving can normally occur through simple actions taken with the advice of a physician that include making certain you are able to avoid hypoglycemia by testing before driving; recognizing symptoms of hypoglycemia if they occur; and treating them when they occur. Handling these issues properly can avoid the expense of hiring an attorney to recover your license or represent you in a criminal or civil action taken against you, as well as an increase in auto insurance rates.
Just Saying No
Most judges and trial attorneys will tell you that when answering questions in court you need to listen carefully to what you are being asked and honestly answer the question posed. Don’t go beyond what is asked; don’t volunteer information not requested. The same advice holds true when answering questions about medical conditions for a driver’s license renewal.
In California, in order to renew a driver’s license, a driver must answer questions under oath and provide those answers to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Depending on how those questions are answered, there may or may not be some additional procedures and a possible delay in, or outright refusal to allow, the driving license renewal. (See accompanying article, ANSWERING YES)
Many renewal applicants in California believe that they must advice the DMV that they have diabetes when filling out the renewal form. In many cases, they are wrong, and risk a delay in renewal or even an unnecessary or improper loss of the right to drive.
It is important to know that the California renewal form does not simply ask if you have diabetes. Nor does it ask if you take insulin. The DMV asks questions related to these issues, but it is critical to answer the specific questions actually asked, not broader and simpler questions not asked. This is a clear example of a case where it pays to listen carefully to the question being asked and not volunteer information not requested.
The California driver’s license renewal form asks three questions relating to diabetes. In the first, the form says that medical information must be reported if it involves a condition causing “[l]oss of consciousness or marked confusion experienced on one or more occasions.”
This question allows the renewal applicant to avoid mentioning diabetes if the question can honestly be answered no. It is important to bear in mind that the question is preceded by a statement which says the DMV is seeking information about “the past 5 years”. So, if you last lost consciousness ten years earlier when first diagnosed, a yes answer is not required.
If you are on insulin, and even some persons not on insulin but taking oral medications, it is possible or even very likely that you have had symptoms of low blood sugar, known as hypoglycemia. But that is not the same as losing consciousness or even marked confusion. Hypoglycemia may have resulted in a loss of consciousness or marked confusion in the past five years. If so, your answer must be yes. But if not, your answer can honestly and properly be no.
Hypoglycemia can, of course, cause confusion. The question is, to what extent? If hypoglycemia has resulted in a condition where one truly is unable to function responsibly, then this is a situation where public safety requires a yes answer so the DMV can review the circumstances and verify that safe driving is possible. But, where hypoglycemia can be handled safely and responsibly, where adequate testing and treatment is always done, the symptoms of a low blood sugar have not led to “marked confusion”, and the diabetic driver can prevent a safety risk while driving, the question can and should be answered no and there is no obligation to advise the DMV regarding your diabetes.
In many cases, the person with diabetes may be the only one who knows the actual answer to these questions. In most, a physician or a spouse may also have a very solid answer. In cases where the answer is most likely to be yes, outside and even unknown witnesses may also know the answer – for example, where the driver hit a car or pulled over and received assistance from a police officer or EMT following hypoglycemia. In those cases, it may be that there is substantial evidence that “marked confusion” has occurred within the past five years and the honest and proper answer must be yes. [Keep in mind that the worse thing that can happen in almost any legal matter is to be caught in a lie. In the case of a driving license renewal, it will be far harder to get a license back if there is evidence of dishonesty before the DMV.]
A somewhat more complicated question on the California DMV renewal form follows the one about loss of consciousness or marked confusion. This one asks if you suffer from “[a]ny disease or disorder which may affect your ability to operate a motor vehicle safely upon a highway, such as: epilepsy, diabetes, stroke, drug or alcohol addiction.”
Again, one needs to consider and answer the actual question asked. Again, the form does not say you must report any diagnosis of diabetes. It says you must do so if that medical condition is one which may affect your ability to operate a motor vehicle safely upon a highway. If, however, you are a person who tests before driving; who always carries something to treat low blood sugar; who recognizes symptoms of hypoglycemia and knows how to handle those symptoms promptly and safely, the honest and proper answer may be that your diabetes does not affect your ability to operate a motor vehicle safely.
Persons who have been trained to handle diabetes properly and who are able to abide by their doctor’s advice typically drive far more safely than persons talking on a cell phone; eating lunch; or performing a duet at a sold out concert with their favorite singer on CD. Such persons can honestly and properly answer the question no and are not obliged to inform the DMV of their diabetes.
Finally, the California renewal form asks about “[a]ny vision change which could affect your ability to drive safely, such as: glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, cataracts, macular degeneration.” This question can and should be answered just as the prior ones. The answer depends on your medical circumstances. One can have some amount of diabetic retinopathy and still not advise the DMV about it. It depends on its treatment and whether or not it affects one’s ability to drive safely. Many persons with diabetes have relatively minor traces of retinopathy that do not affect driving safety. This issue can and should be discussed annually with an eye doctor and the answer provided to the DMV based on your physician’s opinion and your own knowledge of your ability to drive safely.
But, even more important than understanding when and why it is possible to answer no to these questions, is to understand when and why it is required that you answer yes and inform the DMV of your condition. If you suffered from a lapse of consciousness or marked confusion in the past five years; if your diabetes does make you a driving safety risk, these are facts which must be dealt with and resolved immediately. In fact, you should not wait for a license renewal to do so. These questions remind us of the serious dangers to safe driving that exist for those of us with diabetes. It is all too easy to ignore the serious risks until something happens that forces us to face reality. Far worse than the tiresome chore of filling out medical forms with your doctor or even a suspended driving license, is being behind the wheel when an unanticipated low blood sugar hits and sends you and your car slamming uncontrolled into a fender, a light pole, or a twelve year old riding her bicycle down the street in front of your home. These questions are serious and need to be answered truthfully. We all need to live with those answers.