Bill Aims to Eliminate Double Dangers of Driving While Diabetic

Andrew Kitchenman | May 6, 2013 | Health Care
Code on back of license would alert police that driver is in diabetic shock rather than drunk

Senator Fred Madden (D-Camden and Gloucester)
The symptoms of diabetic shock can be easily mistaken for intoxication, which can put diabetic drivers in a doubly life-threatening situation when behind the wheel. Police officers can unknowingly treat drivers as if they’re breaking the law, rather than giving them the immediate attention they need.

A bill advancing in the Legislature (A-945 and S-2405) is aimed at reducing the chance of that situation occurring, by allowing residents with diabetes to include a code on their driver’s license indicating that they have the disease.

The symptoms of diabetic shock can include slurred speech, drowsiness, and other manifestations that police officers have mistaken for inebriation when they have pulled over stricken drivers.

Bill sponsor Assemblywoman Celeste M. Riley (D-Cumberland, Gloucester, and Salem) said she introduced the measure after constituents approached her about concerns they had about family members with diabetes.

In addition, she said a friend had a dangerous run-in with police while having a severe case of diabetic shock.

“He was going into a diabetic coma and they treated him like a criminal,” Riley said. “Luckily he was able to communicate that he was diabetic and they were able to treat him.”

Riley noted that the surging number of diabetics in New Jersey will likely lead to an increasing number of situations in which police officers encounter drivers in a similar situation.

The Assembly passed the bill on April 29, the same day the chamber passed a separate bill requiring the state to develop an action plan to reduce diabetes.

In 2010, New Jersey had 1 million residents with diabetes, or 11.2 percent of the population, a number that is expected to rise to 1.5 million, or 15.6 percent, by 2025, according to the Institute for Alternative Futures, a Virginia-based nonprofit.

“It’s something that’s compounded by the fact that it’s going to be happening more and more — we have a lot of children who are overweight,” said Riley, noting that weight problems can lead to diabetes.

“We’re combating that in our schools. This is another of the ways that I felt we could address the issue,” Riley said of the driver’s license measure.

The bill originally would have required that a license include the words “insulin dependent diabetic” in capital letters. However, due to space constraints, the legislation was modified so that a code on the back would indicate that the person has a condition that requires further investigation. Once an officer entered the driver’s license number into the state database, the officer would learn that the person has diabetes.

Riley said that when state officials next consider a redesign of the license, they should plan to leave space for diabetic condition.

She added residents with diabetes should be taking care of themselves so that these emergencies don’t occur, adding that they also can wear bracelets to notify emergency personnel of their condition.

“You can be the most proactive, but still possibly do something where your diabetes or blood sugar changes and you could wind up in a situation” in which the person is in danger, Riley said. “It could be deadly if you don’t treat them quickly.”

Senate sponsor Sen. Fred H. Madden Jr. (D-Camden and Gloucester) said that he had multiple experiences in his career as a state trooper when he initially mistook a diabetic driver’s condition for being drunk.

“From my perspective, it’s an opportunity to help law enforcement with not just investigation, but their response to the diabetic that’s in shock,” Madden said.

He vividly recalled an early experience chasing a driver whose car was speeding more than 30 miles over the speed limit on Route 49 in the tiny borough of Shiloh in Cumberland County. Madden initially thought the driver was intoxicated, before learning he had diabetes.

“He was very calm but he had no idea where he was,” Madden said.

Madden noted that over the course of years on the job, “there’s a high probability that an officer would run into this.”

The Assembly passed the measure by 66-5, with five members not voting and four abstaining. In addition, the Senate Transportation Committee recently released the Senate version of the bill. Madden said he hopes that the full Senate passes the measure before the summer break at the end of June.