Can I still drive if I have a heart condition?
Having a heart condition might stop you from driving for a while. Claire Shaw explains why, and looks at the impact not being able to drive can have on your life.
Many of us take driving for granted. Although a diagnosis of a heart condition or other health problem doesn’t always mean you can’t get behind the wheel, for many this will be the case, at least temporarily. It can be a difficult adjustment.
“It was a real kick in the teeth being told I couldn’t drive for six months,” says Becky Meyrick, 35, a teacher who lives in Dorset. Becky (pictured below) has Long QT syndrome – a rare inherited heart condition that can cause fainting, seizures and palpitations.
When it’s a daily habit, it’s easy not to realise how demanding driving is
Becky only discovered she had it when she keeled over during a charity run, aged 24. She was fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), which produces a controlled electric shock when needed, to restore a normal heart rhythm. It wasn’t until five years later, in 2012, that Becky experienced a shock.
“I was in a gym class trying to keep up with everyone – and then I blacked out,” she says. “When I came to, I realised my defibrillator had gone off. I had to surrender my driving licence for six months. I found this really difficult. You get used to the luxury of having a car – [so it] was really frustrating.”
The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) states you can’t drive for six months if you’ve had a shock from your ICD. You also can’t drive for a month after having one fitted (six months if it’s been fitted due to a cardiac arrest).
Why you may have to stop driving if you have a heart condition
When it’s a daily habit, it’s easy not to realise how demanding driving is. You need to process information, make quick decisions, use your muscles to control the car, and use your eyesight to see the dashboard and assess hazards.
There are two things the DVLA considers when assessing whether you can drive:
- Could your condition cause a sudden collapse at the wheel?
- Could it affect the safe handling of a vehicle?
Becky Meyrick has had to give up her driving licence several times because of her ICD
Telling the DVLA about your heart condition
As a driver, it is your legal responsibility to notify both the DVLA and your insurer if you develop a medical condition, or if your condition changes. It’s important to do this as soon as possible, as your car insurance may be invalid if you haven’t disclosed it. You can do this in writing, by email or telephone, or via a DVLA
The DVLA might contact your doctor, ask you to take a driving assessment or ask you to be medically examined
If a doctor tells you to stop driving for three months or more, you will have to surrender your licence to the DVLA. You can apply to get your licence back when you meet the medical standards for driving again.
The DVLA will then decide on one of three possible outcomes: you can continue to drive; you may be temporarily unable to drive; or, in rare cases, you will have to stop permanently. It all depends on your individual condition.
The DVLA might contact your doctor, ask you to take a driving assessment or ask you to be medically examined. The majority of applications are processed
within 90 days, but the average turnaround is 31 days after you’ve applied to get an answer. If you are over 70, you have to renew your driving licence every three years, regardless of whether you have a medical condition.
Learning to cope with not being able to drive
Over five years, Becky had to give up her driving licence twice, for six months each time, as a result of ICD shocks. She also had to stop driving for one month when the ICD was fitted.
“I worked in a school that was eight miles from home,” she says. “I had to ask colleagues to collect me on the way. I felt it was a lot to ask people to taxi me to work, but they were always very kind about it.”
Don’t take not being able to drive as the end of the world, like I did. Look at the positives – there are still loads of things you could do
Becky was medically eligible to get a free bus pass during the time she couldn’t drive. “I loved the free bus pass,” she says. “I felt like the only person under 65 to have that!”
A big challenge for Becky was what to do with her car: “I found this decision really stressful, but I was lucky that my Dad and sister were able to use the car. I’d recommend trying to find someone who could drive your car around the block now and then. You may have to consider selling it.
“But don’t take not being able to drive as the end of the world, like I did – I was devastated at the loss of independence. Six months does go quickly. Look at the positives – there are still loads of things you could do. I could have taken the bus to Exeter, or gone on a day trip to the Jurassic coast.”
It’s worth finding out whether you can start the process of getting your driving licence back a bit earlier. For example, those who’ve been shocked by their ICD can start the application process after four months – then, once the six months have elapsed and your cardiologist agrees, you can get back behind the wheel straight away.
For information about driving and specific conditions, visit our Heart Health page on driving with a heart and circulatory condition.
Some benefits of not driving
- You could do more walking – which is good for your health!
- You may save money. Owning a car is expensive. It costs the average household £50–£85 per week to run a car (including road tax, insurance, fuel, repairs and servicing, etc).
- Research shows that those who’ve had to give up driving use public transport more – this helped some to make friends and feel less lonely.
- You might get a free bus pass. These are available to older and disabled people, including those with a condition that means they would be refused a driving licence. (in Northern Ireland, disabled people can only get a half-fare bus pass).