Rebecca Kay sustained an injury at age 16 that caused permanent damage. That did not stop her though from driving for 44 years without any modifications to her cars. Her decades-old injury was not getting any worse. In 2013, however, much to Rebecca’s surprise, North Carolina’s Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) added a restriction to her license requiring that she drive with a wheel knob. She had never driven with a wheel knob and was not driving with a wheel knob when she passed the road test to renew her license. When she asked to have the wheel knob requirement removed from her license, the DMV examiner told her that she’d have to take the road test again. So she did. Again she drove without a wheel knob and passed the road test a second time. When she asked again about having the wheel knob requirement removed, the DMV examiner refused and threatened to add more restrictions to Rebecca’s license if she continued to challenge the restriction.
Drivers with disabilities have long been singled out for additional, expensive, and in many circumstances, unnecessary medical testing by the DMV Medical Review Program. In February, Disability Rights North Carolina and six individual drivers, including Rebecca, sued the DMV over its discriminatory practices. The lawsuit explains that no matter how many medical tests and driving exams these drivers pass, they face countless future tests, expense, and uncertainly because the DMV will never stop questioning whether they are safe drivers. Disability Rights NC has had enormous public response to this lawsuit, including many anecdotes of similar treatment from people across the state. The issue resonates because for many a driver license is not just about driving; it is the road to independence.
No one is more excited about the freedom that comes with driving than a teenager. Logan Wilson is no different. He lives in Chapel Hill. Like many 16 year olds, Logan earned his provisional license. Unlike his peers, Logan was required to undergo additional testing due to his cerebral palsy. The DMV imposed these requirements even though Mr. Wilson’s doctor assured the DMV that Logan’s condition was stable and non-degenerative, and it did not require follow up review or additional restrictions.
In 2011, Katherine McCrory moved to North Carolina and applied for her first North Carolina driver’s license. She was in her mid-20’s and had been driving for years. She passed the vision, sign, and road tests, and received her license. Days later, the DMV ordered Katherine to have her physician complete a medical report within 30 days. She was also ordered to complete a “behind the wheel assessment,” a driving test that costs hundreds of dollars and can only be performed by an occupational therapist. She was not told why or provided with an opportunity to protest. What she was told was that if she did not comply, she would lose her brand new license. After she turned in positive medical and behind the wheel assessments DMV ordered still more medical testing.
Lack of transparency pervades every aspect of the Medical Review Program. The medical evaluation form is seven pages long and addresses the full panoply of medical conditions. There is no information about what parts to fill out, or why, for example, someone with perfect vision should have to go to an ophthalmologist to get a vision report. When drivers call the DMV to ask questions about the medical review process and the current status of their license, they are put on hold and may never get to speak with someone knowledgeable about their situation. No one explains why they have been referred to the medical review program, how long it will take to get a decision about whether they can keep driving, and absolutely no one explains the rules of the program. The process is mysterious and fraught with anxiety.
For most of us, a driver’s license puts us on the road to independence. For those stuck unfairly in the DMV’s Medical Review program, maintaining a license can be the source of frustration and fear instead.
Vicki Smith is the Executive Director of Disability Rights North Carolina.