While trying to figure out a good topic to write a blog post about while enjoying a giant cup of coffee at a nearby Starbucks, I spied with my two eyes a table of three police officers who were on break. I recently read a great blog post by my buddy Scott Johnson titled “Cops and Low Blood Sugars” about a conversation he had recently with a couple of officers about traffic stops involving diabetes and low blood sugars. Feeling curious, I decided to follow Scott’s lead, so I grabbed my blog business cards and headed over to the table o’ police and asked if I might be able to interrupt them for a few minutes. To my surprise, they were very polite and happy to accommodate me, and invited me to sit down and join them.
These particular three officers worked traffic duty with the Tallahassee Police Department. One of them had also worked for a time with the Florida Highway Patrol. The former FHP officer was the most vocal of the group, and seemed to have had the most experience encountering diabetes behind the wheel.
I started with the same question that Scott did, inquiring if they had encountered traffic stops involving diabetes and low blood sugars. The former FHP officer said yes, and proceeded to share a couple of the more extreme cases he had dealt with. One story involved a man who was having a low blood sugar while driving on I-95 near Jacksonville into oncoming traffic. The officer said that he had to force the driver into the guardrail on the side of the highway to stop his car and keep him from injuring someone in a potential head on collision. Another story involved a PWD behind the wheel who was having a diabetic seizure and crashed into a tree.
I proceeded to ask the officers how they distinguish a diabetic medical emergency from driving while intoxicated (DWI). The short answer, they don’t. At least, not initially. A low blood sugar and a DWI can cause such similar behavior that stopping the vehicle and getting the driver away from the wheel in the name of public safety is of the highest priority to the police officers. There was a lot of head nodding at that statement, so they appeared to be in agreement on this point.
The officers said that they can sometimes distinguish a diabetic medical emergency from a DWI based on smell. Two of them described a sweet odor that comes off of a PWD when they are having a severe low, as opposed to the pungent smell of alcohol. I’m guessing what they are describing is the odor from the clothes-soaking sweat that sometimes accompanies a sudden low. Still, I’m not going to bank all of my points on an officer being able to help me based on smell alone. What if that officer has a cold on that one day that I need his sniffer to be fully functioning to save my life? To my relief, they also acknowledged other typical low blood sugar symptoms including confusion, sweating, inability to focus or respond to basic questions, shakiness, and in extreme situations even seizures, vomiting, and loss of consciousness. I gave them a mental check mark for knowing those.
So what happens, after the car is stopped and everybody is safe? If it is a diabetic medical emergency, the officers confirmed that paramedics would be called. After that, they said to fully expect the applicable punishments according to law. Read: citations and possible suspension of driving privileges until review and approval for reinstatement by the medical review board. They informed me that the steps that a PWD would have to go through after such an event would likely be similar to those that someone who suffers from epilepsy would have to go through to get their license or have their license reinstated, including a period of time (unspecified how long, and probably varies by situation or state) showing that their diabetes is in good control. Still, they deferred to the medical review board, as once the traffic case is closed, they are often left out of the loop as to what exactly happens in the long term.
From their no-nonsense point of view (and the one point where we disagreed), having a low blood sugar behind the wheel of a car and driving drunk are both totally preventable and are entirely the choice of the driver. One officer said that it is person’s choice whether or not they want to take responsibility for their diabetes and keep it under control, no different than a person’s choice to drink alcohol before they get behind the wheel of a car.
Obviously, he didn’t have diabetes. Nobody’s perfect. *wink*
We know that the realities of living with diabetes are not necessarily preventable or predictable. Life happens. Still, rather than argue, I encouraged the officer to continue, because I wanted him to understand that I’m asking for a HUGE number of people who live with diabetes each and every day. I want to make his job and our lives both easier in the unfortunate event that we do find ourselves on the side of the road having to deal with each other. What can we do, as PWD’s, to help police officers help us in a time of need?
Wear a medical alert ID on your wrist.
All three police officers acknowledged that recognizing a medical alert bracelet on the wrist or around the neck of a person is part of their training. They even followed up by saying that the wrist is the first place they would look, since they are trained to make sure they can see a driver’s hands at all times.
I also inquired about bumper stickers or window decals that say “Diabetic Driver.” They all said that it might help, but a medical ID on the wrist would be better. In a traffic stop, they are trained to look for other things beyond what a bumper sticker or window decal says, and a medical ID on the driver is more indicative that they are indeed the person in need of attention.
Get your drivers license to indicate that you have diabetes or are insulin dependent.
In Florida, if you indicate that you have Type 1 diabetes you can get a stamp on our license that says “INSULIN DEP” in bright red letters. I actually took my license out and showed it to the officers, and they said that because that is the only red ink on the entire license, it stands out and they will notice it. They also said that sometimes (unfortunately, not 100% of the time) the dispatch officer will also point out to them when they run the license number that this is a person who is insulin dependent and may need assistance. Check with your state to see what your options are. (I’d also be curious to know if there are any options like this for those with Type 2 diabetes.)
Check your blood sugar EVERY time before you get behind the wheel of a car.
The officers (and me) all agreed that managing diabetes is the most important thing we can do before getting behind the wheel of a car. Before you drive anywhere, stop and take 30 seconds to check your blood sugar, and if necessary treat accordingly. Let’s be honest, you probably need to check it anyway.