Why is the California DMV concerned about Bi-Polar Disorder?

The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) is tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that all drivers in the state maintain an adequate level of skill and knowledge in order to safely operate a motor vehicle.  Additionally, the DMV is equally concerned that all California drivers maintain a proper level of Physical and Mental health to demonstrate their fitness to drive.

Any person who has been diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder is subject to changes in mood, awareness and consciousness.  Also, a person who is being treated for Bi-Polar disorder may also be taking prescription medications that may cause impairment when driving.  While issues of Mental Health are profoundly private and should remain confidential between a patient and their doctor, the DMV will conduct an investigation into any suggestion that a driver suffers with Bi-Polar disorder to determine if it affects their ability to drive.

Bi-Polar disorder, commonly referred to as “Manic-Depressive” disorder, is a brain disorder that causes unusual fluctuations in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to function in a day to day environment.  The patient’s mood will range from periods of elevation; being elated and energized (known as manic episodes) to periods of sadness and hopelessness (known as depressive episodes).

People with Bi-Polar disorder experience periods of unusually intense emotion, changes in sleep patterns, activity levels and unusual behavior.  People with Bi-Polar disorder are also at a higher risk for thyroid disease, migraine headaches, sleep apnea, heart disease, diabetes and obesity. Additionally, 50 to 60 percent of patients with Bi-Polar disorder will at some point in their lifetime struggle with substance abuse and addiction issues.

Many Bi-Polar patients respond well to treatment and can achieve stability in their day to day lives through a combination of medications and psychotherapy, but this is a life-long illness that has frequent ups and downs.

The DMV’s concern comes from the fact that people who are experiencing a “manic episode” are notoriously reckless and aggressive when driving.  A person who is suffering from a “depressive episode” may contemplate thoughts of suicide, which could have tragic consequences.  Also, the medications that a Bi-Polar patient takes (particularly during periods of adjustment) may have a sedating effect and impair a person’s ability to drive.

How does the DMV learn I have Bi-Polar disorder?

The California Department of Motor Vehicles is deeply wired into the fabric of our society.  The department may receive information that a driver has been diagnosed with Bi-Polar disorder from a variety of sources, such as:

  • Law enforcement officers who learn of a mental health issue while contacting a driver;
  • Medical professionals who discover an issue;
  • Friends who believe the person is not safe to drive
  • Family who believes the person should stop driving
  • Individual drivers who unwittingly reveal too much about themselves to the DMV.
  • Anonymous tipsters

The DMV receives hundreds of reports or “tips” each day which alert the department that drivers suffer with a variety of physical or mental health issue.  Regardless of where the information originates, the DMV will investigate any issue that can affect public safety.

What action will the DMV take if I have Bi-Polar disorder?

The answer to this question can be somewhat confusing.  Depending upon the source of the information and the nature of the allegation, the DMV may take any of the following action:

  • Take no action
  • Direct the driver to participate in the Re-Examination process.
  • Suspend the driver license and offer the person the right to a hearing.

No Action

If the DMV determines there is insufficient evidence to cause concern, they may elect to close the case and no further action is required.  It has been the policy of the California DMV to conduct some level of investigation into any report of Mental Health issues, so it is highly unlikely that the DMV will take no action.


The next level of action occurs when the DMV sends a person a “Notice of Re-Examination Appointment.”  This is a letter the driver receives in the mail which requires the driver to appear at a DMV office for an “interview.”  As part of the Re-Examination process, the DMV may require the driver to take a written test, a vision test and a driving test.  At the very least, the driver will be interviewed to determine if there is cause for concern.   If the assigned DMV Hearing Officer determines there is no cause for concern, he or she may end the action and close the case.  On the other hand, if the Hearing Officer determines there is the slightest chance that a person’s Bi-Polar disorder, or their use of medications, affects their ability to drive, the license will be suspended and the person is then eligible for a hearing.


If the DMV has either moved directly to suspension, or if the license has been suspended following a Re-Examination, the effected driver is entitled to an Administrative Hearing to rebut the DMV’s evidence and to reverse their decision.  A DMV Administrative Hearing is a complicated and often confusing process that is run much like a mini trial.  At such a hearing, evidence is introduced, witnesses may testify and experts may offer opinions.

When the Administrative Hearing ends, the assigned hearing officer will either close the case and return the person to driving, or they will order the continued suspension or revocation of the driver license.

What can I do to protect myself?

First of all, the most proactive step a patient with Bi-Polar disorder can take is to actively follow their doctor’s orders and treatment plan.  Carefully take prescription medications as directed, avoid the use of other substances and remain active in psychotherapy.

If you receive a “Notice of Re-Examination Appointment” or an “Order of Suspension/Revocation” in the mail from the DMV, do not despair.  There are thousands of people driving in California today with a myriad of medical problems ranging from Epilepsy and Diabetes to Bi-Polar disorder and anxiety.  Remember, you are entitled to defend yourself.  You are entitled to demonstrate that your illness is stable and that you are safe to drive. Most importantly seek the assistance of a DMV Defense expert who knows how to beat the DMV at its own game.

Call the DMV Defense experts at California Drivers Advocates for a free assessment of your case.  At the very least, we can provide you with free information.  If necessary, we can step into the case and protect your rights.