A victim of a road accident can claim compensation for injury and damage only if they can prove another driver was negligent. If, for example, a car drives into the back of you, or fails to stop at a junction and crashes into you, the driver's legal responsibility would seem clear. But what if that driver lost control due to a sudden severe illness, a black out or a heart attack? Can he be held legally responsible?.

The relevant legal defence is called automatism. The concept is that a defendant cannot be liable for his actions if he crashes due to medical factors outside his control. For example, if someone has a heart attack behind the wheel and crashes into another driver, that is not an act of negligence.

To succeed in proving automatism a defendant would have to prove that he lost control due to medical reasons (relying on expert medical opinion) out of his control. If, however, the medical evidence shows that the driver was ill and incapacitated for some time before the crash and still decided to continue driving, the automatism defence may not be enough to protect him.

It is a matter of common sense that if you are feeling very ill and symptoms are getting worse, a decision to drive should not be taken without careful assessment of the risk. Is there an urgent need to drive? Can someone else drive? Could you wait for your symptoms perhaps to improve or use alternative transport?

The Institute of Advanced Motorists ("IAM") encourages drivers to think twice before they drive if they are feeling unwell. Research has shown that drivers' concentration levels drop if they are suffering from a bad cold or flu. Medication can make drivers drowsy, reaction times can be affected. Drivers should read the warnings on medication leaflets carefully before risking their own safety as well as those of their passengers and other road users.

A driver has a duty to assess whether they are safe to drive and so unless the sudden attack or illness is totally unexpected, a driver can still be found to have been negligent and to be responsible for any damage caused to other people or vehicles. If starting to feel ill, a driver should drive as slowly as he safely can and on major roads stay on the inside lane so that he can pull over if his health deteriorates.

If the illness or condition is not temporary, then drivers must check with DVLA to see if they should be driving at all. The DVLA website has helpful checklists to assist in knowing what conditions are relevant and forms are available to download. Failing to notify DVLA can result in a fine or a criminal prosecution if you are involved in an accident whilst driving with a notifiable condition.

A vehicle is a potentially lethal object and accidents caused by momentary lapses in concentration, whether medical in cause or otherwise, can result in misery to the lives of others just because not enough respect is given to the need for full and complete concentration when behind the wheel.

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