Cedric Stephens | Mental illness and fitness to drive
QUESTION: A family member who lives with me suffers from mental illness. The person, who is over 25, is being treated by a psychiatrist and has been on medication for more than five years. He holds a private driver's licence. Is it okay for him to drive my car? Would my motor policy protect him if he were to be involved in an accident?
- L.P., Mona, Kingston
INSURANCE HELPLINE: Your questions led me to recall a very frightening insurance event relating to mental illness. It involved Germanwings Flight 4U 9525. An Airbus 320 aircraft was deliberately crashed by the young co-pilot in the French Alps in March 2015. All 150 passengers died.
The plane struck the mountain at 430 miles per hour. Investigators later discovered that the young pilot had been suffering from depression for years. This was hidden from his employers.
"He believed he was losing his sight - although he was not - and had been taking medication which made him unfit to fly," said a BBC report.
Section 18 of the existing Road Traffic Act sets out the conditions under which private driver's licences are granted to operate a motor vehicle on our public roads.
It says that the applicant must make "a declaration in the prescribed form that he is not suffering from any such disease or physical disability as may be specified in the form, or any other disease or physical disability which would be likely to cause the driving by him of a motor vehicle ... as he would be authorised by the licence to drive, to be a source of danger to the public".
I have not seen the form. As a result, I do know whether it excludes persons will mental illnesses, or whether it imposes a duty on persons with licences to declare such illnesses to the authorities when they become aware of that fact. This point may be of academic interest since this law will soon be replaced. Perhaps the relevant authorities can clarify.
Motor insurers help drivers to manage some of the risks associated with driving. They view the health status - physical and mental - of drivers to be of great importance. Applications for coverage are drafted to seek information to help them assess the physical and mental-health conditions of drivers.
Mental-health status has taken on even more importance following the Airbus crash and the fact that motor vehicles are now being used as instruments of terror. One insurer asks: "Does any person who will drive the motor vehicle suffer from any illness or medical condition, whether physical or mental, including but not limited to ... ?"
Where the person seeking insurance or one of the drivers suffers from a physical or mental-health condition, full details are required to be disclosed. Non-disclosure of the illness or misrepresentation of it will cause serious problems.
The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry provides a medical basis for insurers' action in relation to mental illnesses in an article titled 'Fitness to Drive of Psychiatric Patients'. It reported on the results of a study that was conducted "to assess the impact of mental illness and current psychiatric drug treatments on the cognitive functioning and psychomotor skills that determine fitness to drive through the study of a sample of psychiatric outpatients treated in a community mental health centre".
The study concluded that driving is a complex skill that requires adequate information processing, sustained attention or vigilance, concentration, and a good memory.
"Drivers must have control over impulse and risk-taking, and their judgement should be mature and unimpaired, with the ability to anticipate the actions of other road users. Problem-solving ability and hazard perception are necessary throughout the drive. It can be appreciated, therefore, that many psychiatric disorders may present problems with driving.
"Decisions regarding fitness to drive on psychiatric grounds, including behaviour disorders and drug abuse, can be difficult because of the subjective nature of the symptoms and difficulty in the prediction of disturbed behaviour.
"Moreover, psychiatric drug treatments can produce changes in perception, information processing and integration, and psychomotor activity that can disturb and/or interfere with the ability to drive safely," the study found.
It is therefore unwise to assume that it would be okay for your relative to drive without first discussing the matter with his doctor and then with your insurer. If his mental-health condition was only discovered at the time of an accident, the chances are that any claim you submitted would be rejected.
Having a mental illness does not always mean you cannot drive safely. But some drivers need to take extra care or may become too unwell to drive, according to the British charity, Rethink Mental Illness.
- Cedric E. Stephens provides independent information and advice about the management of risks and insurance. For free information or counsel, write to: firstname.lastname@example.org.