Narcoleptic driver causes concern for Ellsworth police

Posted Aug. 22, 2014, at 5:48 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 23, 2014, at 6:53 a.m.

ELLSWORTH, Maine — Local police have been contacted more than once by people who say they have come across a woman passed out behind the wheel of a car stopped directly in the middle of a Hancock County road.

Around 1:30 p.m. Monday, a motorist reported to police that a woman was asleep behind the wheel of a car stopped in the westbound travel lane of Route 1 in Hancock. The caller told police the driver then regained consciousness and resumed driving her car into Ellsworth.

When Ellsworth police Officer Kevin Mote responded, he located the woman and spoke with her at a business on High Street. She was lucid: She knew what time it was, what day it was and that Barack Obama is the president, he said. There was no indication she was impaired or needed any kind of assistance.

But while Mote was speaking with her, the local police dispatcher learned other police officers received multiple similar complaints about the same driver.

“She has narcolepsy and falls asleep while driving,” Mote wrote in a summary about the incident. The driver, he added, has “an extensive history of reports against her.”

But, Mote added, he had no cause or authority to prevent her from continuing to drive. He had no choice but to let her go on her way.

Police have not released any identifying information about the person, other than to say she lives in Hancock County. But they are concerned she could get into a serious accident or cause one if she continues to fall asleep while driving down the road.

“It is scary,” Mote said Wednesday, referring to the potential for an accident being caused by the driver asleep behind the wheel.

Sgt. Shawn Willey of Ellsworth Police Department said Thursday that local police have fielded eight motor vehicle operation complaints about the same driver since 2009. In addition to those complaints, he said, she has been involved in three minor accidents in Ellsworth, including one in February 2013, when the car she was driving rear-ended another vehicle.

Willey said local police officers have submitted two adverse driving reports about her to the Maine Bureau of Motor Vehicles, once in 2011 and 2013, but said the woman has retained her license despite those reports. He said they plan to send in a third such report after Monday’s incident.

In the 2011 and 2013 reports to BMV, Willey said, Ellsworth police indicated the driver has acknowledged being a narcoleptic and to falling asleep behind the wheel. He said the state bureau could require the driver to provide proof of medical clearance before her license is renewed.

“They usually do a medical screening on these people” who appear to have difficulty driving, Willey said.

Cindy Lincoln, a license issuance manager with BMV, said Friday that if a possible medical problem arises, the bureau can require a specific driver to be checked by a doctor to determine whether he or she is fit to drive. She did not comment about the particular driver Ellsworth police have concerns about.

If a police officer mentions a particular possible medical condition in an adverse driving report, Lincoln said that information is passed along to whatever doctor the driver chooses to be examined by. After being given a form for a doctor to fill out, the driver needs to undergo a medical exam and return the completed form to the bureau within 30 days.

If the exam reveals a problem, the bureau can suspend a driver’s license until the problem is addressed, possibly with medication or with driving restrictions, such as not driving at night or only driving within a certain geographical area, according to Lincoln. The bureau also can require drivers to retake a road test in order to get their license back or, in other cases, permanently revoke their license.

“If [a medical issue] is severe and the doctor thinks they shouldn’t be driving, the doctor will note that on the form,” Lincoln said.

Attempts this week to determine whether other police departments in the Ellsworth area may have fielded similar complaints about the same narcoleptic driver were unsuccessful.

Maine State Police Lt. Rod Charette said he was unaware of officers serving in Troop J — which covers Hancock and Washington counties — having repeat contact with anyone who continues to fall asleep while driving.

He said a few times each year, troopers file adverse driving reports about motorists whom they believe should have their licenses revoked. Sometimes all it takes is one egregious incident, such as a bad accident, for a trooper to file such a report, he said. But when it comes to erratic operation complaints, he said it can be difficult knowing whether someone may just be tired or may have a more serious, chronic medical condition or other kind of problem.

“There are a million reasons why a person may drift over the centerline or fall asleep at the wheel,” Charette said.

When troopers do file adverse driving reports with BMV, they often are about older people who may have diminished motor or cognitive skills. In such situations, troopers likely will try to talk to that person’s relatives in an effort to have the issue resolved before the bureau steps in.

“It’s not an easy decision for people to make,” to give up their own licenses voluntarily, he said.

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