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DUIs and the dangers of driving after a brain injury

Let me present a hypothetical situation. There has been an accident. It might be something minor - someone veers off the road or hits a parked car in a parking lot. When the police arrive, the driver of the vehicle shows all the usual signs of intoxication. Their speech is slurred. They may be moving lethargically or might become aggressive. The police put them through the field tests for sobriety - they are unbalanced and seem to have trouble following directions. Our strict laws regarding driving under the influence means that this combination of circumstances is enough to earn drivers acting suspiciously a DUI arrest in Arizona, including the immediate penalties that come along with that.

But what if the BAC test reveals the driver was not over the legal limit?

It is way more common than people think, but there have been cases in which a driver who has suffered from a brain injury (TBI) or a concussion in the past suddenly experiences a recurrence of those symptoms, which are then mistaken for intoxication.

The effects of a head injury and intoxication are really surprisingly similar, including:

•· An inability or difficulty in maintaining balance

•· Sudden changes in mood and/or aggressive behavior

•· Dizziness and confusion

•· Headache

•· Difficulty or inability to perform complex movements in sequence

•· Tremors

•· Difficulty focusing on tasks at hand

•· Slurred speech and problems understanding others' speech

•· Poor hand/eye coordination

•· Difficulty or inability to focus visually

Looking at this list, it's easier to see how someone experiencing these symptoms would both fail a field sobriety test and appear to be driving while well over the legal limit.

Medical professionals recognize the problem. Our police should be trained to, as well.

The Journal of Neurotrauma recently published the findings of a study that focused specifically on the driving ability of people who had previously suffered a concussion, but who either considered themselves or were considered by their physician to be fully recovered. The results of the study, which came from researchers at the University of Georgia, showed pretty clearly that even when outward symptoms were no longer present and they were supposedly recovered, that individuals who had a prior concussion still drove more erratically than other participants with no history of head injury - with less general control of their vehicle and swerving within their lane. This information was compiled after testing subjects using a driving simulator, so it only seems logical that the difficulty could be even greater - and more dangerous - when physically driving out on the road.

Drinking alcohol can and sometimes does exacerbate the difficulties that people experience after a head injury once the alcohol is in their system, amplifying issues that might otherwise be fairly minor and controllable, making it much safer to avoid alcohol entirely. It's also possible for a new injury in the same general location of the previous head trauma to bring symptoms back to the surface suddenly. This is worth noting as a concern while driving, due to the fact that most traumatic brain injuries occur as a result of car accidents in the first place. The compounded effects of multiple head injuries has been a popular topic of discussion in the world of football over the last decade, as the effects of untreated concussions sustained during practices or during games have been shown to lead to not only physical but psychological and emotional difficulties years after the fact, as well.

Document your brain injury and be prepared to offer proof in the event of a DUI stop

It's extremely important for anyone who has sustained or suspects that they have sustained a brain injury (traumatic or minor) or a concussion to seek medical assistance immediately. They must also remain mindful of the potential long-term effects of their injury from that point on. Any significant head injury that goes untreated can lead to or increase the risk of serious complications in the future.

As for anyone who has been arrested for a DUI that was actually symptoms of a serious head injury, be prepared to show documentation of the injury having occurred prior to your arrest. It might not be possible to prove your innocence in the moment, but it also shouldn't be difficult to prove it was your medical condition and not just poor decision making, should the need arise in court.

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