Medical emergencies behind the wheel

Dangerous incidents happen more often than you may think

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Drivers along Interstate 295 northbound last December could not believe their eyes when they spotted a gray Cadillac speeding down the grassy side of the interstate. The driver started weaving on the Dames Point Bridge, before veering off the road and traveling for at least half a mile in the grass shoulder. 

Even though the driver, who News4Jax is not naming, plowed into a light pole, he did not stop. A motorcyclist, who calls himself Throttle Fritz, captured the bizarre behavior on a camera mounted to his helmet.

"Dude, what are you doing?" Throttle Fritz can be heard shouting at the driver as he watched the car veer back onto the interstate and then swerve to the right into the median that separates northbound and southbound traffic. 

It appeared the car is headed towards oncoming traffic when the driver shifted back into the northbound lanes. The erratic driving continued for several miles -- at one point the driver hit the concrete barrier on an overpass and skidded along it for about 100 feet.

"He's going to go over the wall," Throttle Fritz shouted as he narrated what he was seeing as he followed behind the car.

"He was going like 45 [mph] with no wheels at all, or no tires at all, just pure rims," he described on the video.

UNCUT: Watch Throttle Fritz's helmet-cam video

Eventually, the car's front rims got stuck in the grass, preventing the driver from going any further. 

As Throttle Fritz walked over to the stopped car, the video shows the wheels spinning because the driver's foot was still on the gas. 

It appeared he is unaware the car is no longer moving.  The motorcyclist opened the driver's door and turned off the ignition. The driver had a blank stare and hardly reacted.

His hands were still gripping the steering wheel tightly and it looked as if he has no idea what he had just done.  Several other drivers also followed the car for several miles. Another witness rushed up and said the driver's skin felt cold and began asking him medical questions. The driver still appeared unaware of what was happening.

"By the time we got him to the side of the road, he was out cold. They were doing CPR on him. Pretty crazy stuff," described Throttle Fritz, as other witnesses -- which reportedly included a medic and a trauma nurse -- help pull the man from the car and lay him down.

Jacksonville Fire Rescue arrived and took the driver away on a stretcher. Witnesses said they believed the man was diabetic or maybe went into cardiac arrest. 

News4Jax asked Jacksonville Fire Chief Kurt Wilson how often medical emergencies occur behind the wheel. 

"It's probably fair to say at least daily, if not every other day," Wilson said.

For medical privacy reasons, Wilson cannot discuss the medical care given to the driver in the video. But in general, he said there are three primary reasons a driver experiences a medical emergency:

  • Low blood sugar from diabetes
  • Seizures
  • Cardiac arrest

  • The Jacksonville Fire Rescue Department, the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the Florida Highway Patrol do not tabulate medical emergencies involving drivers. But, if you ask any paramedic, fireman or police officer, many have a story to tell. 

    "The one that sticks out the most was a person with a history of seizures with a suspended license because of it, who came down the bridge, crossed the median and hit a JSO officer head on," Wilson said. "That was probably 13 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday." 

    He said he responded to the wreck, which happened near the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge on J. Turner Bulter Boulevard. The female driver died. Wilson said the officer in the crash broke his leg and an arm.  

    "The only reason we knew that her license was suspended is because the sheriff's office came up and said she's not supposed to be driving, she has a history of seizures. Had she not driven, the outcome would have been completely different," he said. 

    According to the Epilepsy Foundation, Florida drivers are required to be two years seizure-free and under the regular care of a medical physician to maintain a valid license. 

    In Georgia, drivers with the condition are required to be seizure free for six months. Their licenses will be suspended if they cannot provide proof. 

    Diabetics are not held to the same requirement, but all drivers can be re-evaluated and their licenses reviewed, if they are prone to black outs, dizziness or losing consciousness. Law enforcement, physicians and other health care providers can report drivers to the Highway of Motor Vehicle for review consideration.

    Drivers experiencing a medical emergency are often confused with impaired drivers.

    "A person may not be aware of what's happening and may not even realize that they're speeding or have gone off the road or they're going in the wrong direction," explained JFRD Capt. William McCoy, who described how drivers experiencing medical emergencies can behave. 

    McCoy, a 12-year veteran of Jacksonville Fire-Rescue and works at Station 13 in San Marco, told News4Jax he sees medical emergencies all the time. 

    "A couple of months ago, we went to a car wreck. When we got on scene, they said someone was driving erratically, drove up the steps of a home, and drove into the road and hit a tree," McCoy explained. "He [the driver] was exhibiting signs of post- seizure. So it looks like he had a seizure at the wheel and lost control."

    "A lot of times with a seizure, people won't know they had one until you tell them what happened," McCoy said.

    Another JFRD paramedic said he recently witnessed two drivers experiencing medical emergencies. One had driven to the store to buy food to treat his diabetes and experienced a drop in blood sugar. He lost control of his car on the Southside. 

    Another driver tried to take himself to the hospital when he started to have chest pains. He crashed before arriving. 

    "Diabetics can feel when their blood sugar starts to get low and if you're behind the wheel of a car, you need to pull over. Don't continue to drive, call 911," said Wilson.

    According to Florida Department of Motor Vehicles, 15,647 drivers may not legally drive due to some kind of medical condition.  But, that number could be much higher.  Drivers may be keeping their medical conditions secret to avoid losing their licenses.

    The driver involved in the wreck on I-295 last December refused treatment when he was taken to the hospital.  Again, while we are not identifying him, but we do know he works for a car dealership.

    According to the Florida Highway Patrol crash report, the trooper who interviewed him four hours after the crash said he did not observe any signs the driver was impaired by drugs or alcohol. The driver also told the state trooper he did not have any pre-existing medical conditions. 

    We did speak with the driver, who did not want to discuss whether he actually had a medical emergency or not, but told News4Jax he is "good."

    If you do have a family member who is diabetic, epileptic, has a heart condition, or is prone to dizziness or fainting, you are encouraged to talk with him or her and ask what's being done to control the condition in order to prevent a medical emergency while driving. 

    Something else to consider: The other drivers on the road. 

    "I've been to quite a few wrecks caused by medical reasons and it may not be only them that they hurt. They could crash into another vehicle and hurt or even kill somebody else," warned McCoy.

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