Driving, PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury – New Dangers

Brain Injury Blog

Driving poses new danger for veterans with PTSD/TBI

by Marilyn Lash

Something is happening on our roadways as many service members and veterans are returning from combat. We know that traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (commonly called PTSD) are the “signature wounds” of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The New York Times just published a terrific article about the effects of PTSD  on many returning veterans’ driving. The routine sounds on the highway, a crowded parking lot, or an unmarked vehicle – these can all trigger flashbacks or reminders of roadside bombs, snipers, or ambushes for veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan. Speeding and road rage are common behaviors of veterans with PTSD who are thrill seeking to counteract the emotional numbness and social withdrawal so often seen with PTSD. Erratic driving among returning service members may be far more widespread than we realize. I recall one wife’s comment after her husband returned from service that her knuckles turned white every time she got in the got with him behind the wheel.

Driving is risky business for everyone – with and without a brain injury

“Can I drive?” is one of the first questions asked by survivors after a brain injury. It’s the ticket to independence and autonomy that no adult wants to give up. Driving is something that most of us take for granted once we get our license. It’s a passage to adulthood and independence for most teenagers and young adults. We also know that it comes with risks for injuries or death from motor vehicle crashes which are a major cause of traumatic brain injuries. Driving requires skills and judgment that are developed with experience over time. We are all too familiar with the news stories of car crashes involving new drivers who are too often still in high school. When you combine speeding, alcohol, and recreational drugs with immaturity and inexperience, the results can be deadly. Many of us also know someone who is worried about an elderly parent’s driving and dread the discussion of when it is no longer safe for a parent to drive.

A brain injury can affect the survivor’s ability to drive safely. This applies to young people as well as those of us considered to be “middle age” or even elderly. Not only are there physical skills required to drive, but it also requires visual, perceptual, and auditory skills for safely negotiating the roadway. More difficult to assess are the effects of brain trauma on the driver’s judgment, behavior, emotions, and impulses and distractions.

If you are in a situation where you are concerned about the driving of a family member, do something! Not taking action can be deadly. Many brain injury rehabilitation outpatient programs have therapists trained to assess driving safety. This can literally save a life.

February 3, 2012

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