Should Liz's partner be allowed to drive, after a few fainting spells?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2009

Dear Tom and Ray:

My significant other has collapsed several times in restaurants. My children are concerned about his driving me around. What does one do in an emergency like that? I was told not to turn off the engine. He drives an SUV Ford Explorer automatic.

-- Liz

TOM: Well, whatever you do, Liz, don't serve him dinner while he's driving.

RAY: Actually, YOU need to take over the driving, Liz. Assuming that your significant other's fainting spells have not been successfully diagnosed and treated, it's simply too dangerous to let him drive.

TOM: Not only for YOUR safety, but for the safety of everyone else on the road. What if he's driving and he passes out, runs a red light and totals a minivan with a family of six in it? Or he passes out and drives up onto the sidewalk and takes out a group of pedestrians? It's just not fair to the rest of the community to let him drive unless and until this medical problem is completely resolved.

RAY: It's a difficult conversation to have, and if you and your children are unable to persuade him to give up the keys, you should call his doctor. In most states, doctors can contact the department of motor vehicles and notify it when a patient is medically unfit to drive.

TOM: Now, to address your original question: What happens if someone else reading today finds him- or herself riding with a driver who suddenly becomes incapacitated?

RAY: There is no absolute, one-size-fits-all answer. For instance, what you do on a straight, empty road when you're going 30 mph would differ from what you might do in city traffic, or on a highway or a mountain pass. But here are some general things to think about (our lawyer forbids us from actually recommending anything, but here are some ideas).

TOM: First, some things you might try NOT to do: Don't panic. Yeah, I know, that's easier said than done when your spouse is having a medical emergency and you're barreling, out of control, toward an intersection. But it doesn't help. And don't try to help the driver. You have to get the car stopped so you don't both end up sharing a hospital room. Or worse.

RAY: Don't turn off the engine. You'll lose the power steering and power brakes, and you'll probably need both of them. You also might lock the steering wheel, which won't be helpful and will severely limit your options.

TOM: Don't remove your seat belt, at least until you have the car well under control. If the car does crash, you want to be belted in.

RAY: What you CAN do: Take the steering wheel in your left hand. You should be able to reach it and steer the car without leaving your seat. If the driver's foot is still pressing on the gas pedal, lift his or her right leg up off the pedal to allow the car to slow down by itself.

TOM: After that, it's going to depend on the situation. If there's a parking brake between the seats, pull it up. If you've got some open road, move the shifter into the lowest possible gear. Whether the shifter is on the console between the seats or on a column next to the steering wheel, you should be able to reach it. Shifting it to the lowest gear will eventually slow the car down to 10 mph or so.

RAY: Then you have to stop the car entirely. If there's a big console between the seats, is the car sufficiently out of immediate danger so that you can safely release your seat belt, climb over the console and apply the brake? Are you agile enough, or are the doctors going to have to do a gearshift-ectomy on you when it's all over?

TOM: Once the car is going slow enough, you may need to just slam the transmission into park and let it skid to a halt. If you don't have time for that, you may have to make an instantaneous decision to steer into a parked car, rather than take a chance of hitting a car with people in it. Or you may have to hit a car with people in it rather than hit pedestrians. Or you may be able to steer the car up a hill so the car will stop, and you can then put it in park.

RAY: There are a lot of variables, obviously, so you have to use your wits.

TOM: Or in my brother's case, more than the half he usually uses. But in your case, Liz, you need to get the fainter out of the driver's seat. That's job one.

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