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Why Asking Texas Drivers About Mental Illness is Dumb

by Published on
Texas DPS

Yesterday, the Houston Chronicle reported that the Texas driver’s license application asks drivers whether they’ve been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. The question isn’t new—the Department of Public Safety has asked since the 1970s. Nor has it gone unnoticed; state Rep. Garnet Coleman has been trying to have it removed for the last few legislative sessions. But it’s an important story because, in several ways, it’s about what happens when government and reality collide. (Spoiler: reality loses.)

First, the question is overly broad. It asks, specifically, whether an applicant has in the last two years been diagnosed with, hospitalized for, or is currently receiving treatment for a psychiatric disorder. It doesn’t ask whether the disorder interferes with a person’s ability to safely drive, which is a component of another question about medical conditions in general. By asking separately about medical conditions and psychiatric conditions, the question implies that psychiatric illnesses are not medical, which is a funny distinction to make about a problem effectively treated by a wide array of drugs. And by including all psychiatric disorders in the question’s scope instead of conditions that might affect driving, it’s uselessly inclusive.

Have you ever felt grumpy from caffeine withdrawal? According to the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, that’s a diagnosable psychiatric problem. So are binge eating, sleepwalking and restless leg syndrome. Considering that a quarter of Americans will suffer a mental illness in a given year, the question assumes most drivers will lie.

Second, the question is illogical. A psychiatric condition that’s being treated will usually be less symptomatic than an untreated one. For greater relevance, the question would ask whether a driver has been diagnosed with but declined treatment for a disorder. Or better, it would ask if someone has a mental illness of which they’re unaware. While inquiring about that, Dateline Houston suggests the Department of Public Safety ask if an applicant texts while driving, tends to make terrible decisions, or has ever played Grand Theft Auto.

Third, the enforcement mechanism appears to rely on applicants to lie. Answering “yes” doesn’t disqualify a person, but it leads to more questions to determine whether someone’s psychiatric record should be examined by the Medical Advisory Board of the Department of State Health Services. That board comprises 13 doctors, none of whom are psychiatrists. Texas has about 18 million licensed drivers.

And yet, after all the questions about medical history, a shaded box reminds applicants, “False information could also lead to criminal charges with penalties of a fine up to $4,000.00 and/or jail.”

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic,, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.

  • 1bimbo

    DPS: ‘son, are you crazy?’
    crazy person: ‘no sir, i’m just a little bit off’
    DPS: ‘well then, we’re gonna have to take your gun away.’
    crazy person: ‘you can have my gun when you pry it from my dead cold hands!’

  • Jonathan Nagel

    Well I am 37 and have a disability and admitted to it on my DPS application. I was humiliated and made to take the drivers test again. I passed now weeks later I get a letter in the mail saying my license to drive is under review by Medical Advisory Board who could take my license away for ever. I dont want to send them my medical records., Thats my private life and in no way does my disability put any one at risk on the road. I have been driving since I was 18. All this trouble for being truthful on an application. What has this country come to when this is allowed? If my license is taken then I am forced to break the law by driving for I will be damned if they take that right away from me and this just opens the door for them to have me in the fn system.