Using a population-based case control analysis, Donald Redelmeier and colleagues found that tighter glycemic control, as measured by the HbA1c, is associated with an increased risk of a motor vehicle crash.
Complications from diabetes mellitus can compromise a driver's ability to safely operate a motor vehicle, yet little is known about whether euglycemia predicts normal driving risks among adults with diabetes. We studied the association between glycosylated hemoglobin (HbA1c) and the risk of a motor vehicle crash using a population-based case control analysis.
Methods and Findings
We identified consecutive drivers reported to vehicle licensing authorities between January 1, 2005 to January 1, 2007 who had a diagnosis of diabetes mellitus and a HbA1c documented. The risk of a crash was calculated taking into account potential confounders including blood glucose monitoring, complications, and treatments. A total of 57 patients were involved in a crash and 738 were not involved in a crash. The mean HbA1c was lower for those in a crash than controls (7.4% versus 7.9%, unpaired t-test, p = 0.019), equal to a 26% increase in the relative risk of a crash for each 1% reduction in HbA1c (odds ratio = 1.26, 95% confidence interval 1.03–1.54). The trend was evident across the range of HbA1c values and persisted after adjustment for measured confounders (odds ratio = 1.25, 95% confidence interval 1.02–1.55). The two other significant risk factors for a crash were a history of severe hypoglycemia requiring outside assistance (odds ratio = 4.07, 95% confidence interval 2.35–7.04) and later age at diabetes diagnosis (odds ratio per decade = 1.29, 95% confidence interval 1.07–1.57).
In this selected population, tighter glycemic control, as measured by the HbA1c, is associated with an increased risk of a motor vehicle crash.
Please see later in the article for the Editors' Summary
Around 8% of the US population has diabetes, a group of diseases in which the body cannot control levels of glucose (sugar) in the blood. It can lead to serious complications and premature death, but suitable treatment can control the disease and lower the risk of complications.
Type 1 diabetes occurs when the body's immune system prevents the production of insulin, the hormone that controls blood glucose. It accounts for 5%–10% of diabetes cases in adults and the vast majority of cases in childhood. Patients with type 1 diabetes need to inject insulin to survive. Type 2 diabetes is associated with older age, obesity, family history of diabetes, lack of physical activity, and race/ethnicity. As obesity rates rise worldwide, it is expected that the prevalence of type 2 diabetes will increase.
Why Was This Study Done?
Some complications of diabetes affect the ability to drive safely. Prolonged periods of high blood sugar levels can damage eyesight and nerves throughout the body, resulting in pain, tingling, and reduction of feeling or muscle control. Over time, some diabetics may become unaware of the early symptoms of an abnormally low blood sugar level (hypoglycemia) that can cause confusion, clumsiness, or fainting. Severe hypoglycemia can result in seizures or a coma.
It is common for driver licensing authorities to require evidence that a diabetic person's condition is well controlled before they issue a driving license. One measure of this is the percentage of hemoglobin in their blood that has joined up with glucose, known as HbA1c. This provides a measure of average blood glucose levels over the previous 8–12 weeks. A lower reading is considered an indicator of good diabetic control, but conversely, a blood glucose level that is too low can cause hypoglycemia. Normal nondiabetic HbA1c is between 3.5% and 5.5%, but 6.5% is considered good for people with diabetes.
In this study the researchers tested whether blood glucose levels, as measured by levels of HbA1c, were statistically associated with the risk of a motor vehicle crash.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The authors studied 795 diabetic adults who had been in contact with the driver licensing authority in Ontario, Canada between January 1, 2005 and January 1, 2007 and for whom HbA1c levels were recorded. HbA1c levels varied between 4.4% and 14.7%.
Of the drivers considered, 57 were involved in a car crash and 738 were not. The authors found that lower HbA1c levels were associated with an increased risk of a motor vehicle crash, even when they took into account other factors such as time since diagnosis, treatment, age, age when diagnosed, and, if taking insulin, age insulin started.
The authors also found that the risk of a crash quadrupled when a driver had a history of severe hypoglycemia that required outside help and that there was an increase in risk when diabetes had first been diagnosed at an older age.
What Do These Findings Mean?
The authors conclude by emphasizing the difficulty in knowing whether someone with diabetes is fit to drive. They suggest that a patient's HbA1c level is neither necessary nor sufficient to determine whether a diabetic person is fit to drive and these results, which agree with some other studies, call into question the current legal framework of the US, UK, Canada, Germany, Holland, and Australia, which single out diabetic drivers for medical review.
The finding that lower HbA1c levels are associated with an increased risk of a crash is surprising, as it suggests that a driver is less safe if they control their diabetes well. However, a statistical link does not prove that one event causes another. Unknown social or medical factors might explain the results. In this case, the authors point out that a major drawback of their study is that it is not randomized and drivers have free will in choosing how tightly to control their diabetes and also how carefully they drive. The authors considered whether time spent driving might explain the results, but discounted this for several reasons. One more plausible explanation is that intensive treatment to attain a lower HbA1c level for better general health raises the risk of hypoglycemic episodes.
Please access these Web sites via the online version of this summary at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000192.
Wikipedia includes an article on diabetes (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
The American Diabetes Association publishes information on diabetes in English and Spanish
The American Diabetes Association also publishes information on US states regulation of drivers with diabetes
The World Health Organization of the United Nations Diabetes Programme works to prevent diabetes, minimize complications, and maximize quality of life