Road Worrier Blog

September 1, 2014

Road Worrier: Sometimes, drivers find welcome exit from NC DMV medical scrutiny

Drivers with disabilities find the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles slow to accept proof of their fitness to continue driving.

Roy Bishop proved it can be done. After slogging through years of redundant paperwork and futile phone calls, he finally extricated himself from state Division of Motor Vehicles Medical Evaluation Program and its intrusive scrutiny.

Bishop and other readers shared their DMV experiences after reading the Road Worrier’s account of a federal court case in which the agency is accused of discriminating against drivers with disabilities.

They described shadow-boxing with a faceless, sometimes hostile bureaucracy quick to demand – and slow to recognize – proof of their fitness to continue driving. Their doctors wrote letters to DMV certifying that their respective physical disabilities were stable, not getting worse – and in some cases, getting better.

And Bishop wondered: Did DMV truly have its own doctors evaluating the results of medical and vision exams they demanded every year?

“I remember asking who were the doctors doing this review,” said Bishop, 73, of Raleigh. “They would give me no information. They would not tell me what the criteria were.”

Illness had paralyzed Bishop’s lower body in 1993. He drove for several years with hand controls before his condition actually improved: He was able once again to work the gas pedal with his right foot.

“They would not answer my calls when I asked what is the procedure to get out of this program,” Bishop said.

It would take him more than a decade to find the exit. More about that later.

Dick VanSickle’s condition improved, too, after DMV began requiring yearly proof that it wasn’t getting worse. For him, the change was dramatic: After eye surgery to repair cataracts and insert lens implants, he no longer needed glasses when he drove his car.

VanSickle passed the DMV vision test without glasses. His doctor provided letters certifying that he could drive without them. Four years have passed since this corrective surgery, and DMV is still in denial.

“They ignore all that and say I’m still required to wear glasses when I drive,” said VanSickle, 74, of Rolesville.

Suddenly this summer, DMV dropped its demand for annual examination reports from VanSickle’s eye doctor. But the drive-with-glasses order still stands.

DMV officials won’t say much about the Medical Evaluation Program. A spokesman said he did not have information about how many drivers are covered by the program, and he could not answer questions about what a driver has to do to be released from it.

North Carolinians may learn more in coming weeks when a lawsuit against DMV, filed by six drivers with disabilities, moves toward a possible trial.

Last month, Judge Terrence W. Boyle of North Carolina’s Eastern U.S. District Court refused to dismiss the suit, which accuses DMV of violating the federal Rehabilitation Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act. Now the plaintiffs, represented by Disability Rights North Carolina, a nonprofit advocacy group, will have legal access to the Medical Evaluation Program files.

How do drivers become ensnared in DMV’s medical review program?

Pat Everett made the mistake of using her cane when she walked into a DMV office a few years ago, to change her address. A rude employee demanded to know why she needed a walking stick.

“I said I have multiple sclerosis, but it doesn’t affect my driving,” said Everett, 66, of Havelock. The DMV examiner told her to write down the names of her illness and her medications. He gave her seven pages of forms with orders to have them filled out by her doctors within 30 days.

“I felt so intimidated by this man shoving these pieces of paper across the counter,” Everett said. “He made me feel really bad, like there was something wrong with me.”

Everett has had cataract and lens implant surgery, too, and a doctor’s note that says she no longer needs glasses. But she doesn’t want to risk another visit to the Havelock DMV office.

“I have 20/20 vision now,” Everett said. “But I’m afraid I’ll meet that guy again and he’ll make me feel bad again.”

Physical therapy ordered

Fred Howell’s hassles also began after an unpleasant run-in with a DMV license examiner. He acknowledges having vision problems but blames the examiner for new, far-reaching orders that arrived later in the mail.

“All of a sudden I started getting this stuff about having a physical disability,” said Howell, 70, of Monroe. DMV ordered him to take the unusual step of paying a physical therapist to evaluate his driving skills.

When Howell called the DMV Raleigh office, he lucked out. A helpful, competent person answered the phone.

“I finally got hold of this lady who was very nice and said, ‘You don’t need to do this – it’s ridiculous,’ ” Howell said. The physical therapist order was rescinded.

For Bishop, it took more than a decade of persistence to escape DMV’s medical program.

In 2006, out of the blue, someone returned one of his calls to say that he would be removed from the medical review program if he simply presented a letter from his doctor affirming that his condition was stable. Something like the letter his doctors had sent DMV year after year.

So Bishop drove downtown to deliver a fresh letter into the hands of an employee at DMV headquarters on New Bern Avenue. A few days later, DMV granted his request for release from the yearly program of medical reviews.

“They had this information a long time ago,” Bishop said. “If they only had read it and had their doctors understand what my doctors were saying, they would have granted this the first time.”

His license still says he must wear glasses and use a hand control for the brakes.

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This blog is all about getting around in the Triangle. Bad drivers and traffic hassles. Gas taxes and transportation politics. Public transit and other auto alternatives. The blog is maintained by N&O transportation reporter Bruce Siceloff, whose Road Worrier column is published each Tuesday.

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