Op-Ed: Dear Michigan State Police

Thursday, March 31, 2016 - 6:45pm

The first time I had a seizure was one of the most terrifying and confusing events of my life. Everything that happened was a fog. One moment, I was volunteering as a referee for the local youth football league, and the next, I was staring up at a group of paramedics and my parents, who I knew had not been present during the football game itself. From that moment on, I underwent multiple tests from different doctors, and they all gave me the same diagnosis. I had epilepsy, but they weren’t sure what things might trigger it. I was given a prescription, and I went on my way, pretty much living my life as usual.  

Unfortunately, this wasn’t my first exposure to epileptic seizures. My mother also has epilepsy, but her case is much more potent than mine. She can’t attend fireworks shows, her seizures can be triggered by flash photography and even sunlight shining through trees while driving on a highway can be dangerous for her. Though my triggers are not always the same as my mother’s, I am always conscious of flashing lights.  

Most of these things are easily avoidable. Stimuli like fireworks and flash photography are possible to avert for the most part. I also make sure to get a reasonable amount of sleep every night, because it may be dangerous for people with epilepsy to be low on sleep. But one thing that is all together unavoidable — that can, at any time, spur on an epileptic seizure — is police lights.

Police cars in the state of Michigan are each equipped with one solitary red “gumball” light on the top of the car. While this sounds tame compared to most police cars, each light contains 12 light heads, with nine LED bulbs in each head. This equates to 108 lights on each car. When these lights are used by police officers, they are blinding, and for somebody with epilepsy, they can be a nightmare.

Of course, I realize police must use their lights when pulling people over or chasing down criminals, but there are occasions when police lights are used inappropriately.

My parents recently visited me at the University of Michigan for a basketball game. As we walked out of Crisler Center after the game, we were shepherded toward our car by police who had stopped traffic. To do this, the police parked their cars sideways in the intersection and turned on their flashers. This forced my mother and me to look downward at the ground and shield our eyes, while my father walked in front of us, leading the way. We were extremely fortunate that my father was there at the time.

Think for a moment about what would have happened if he hadn’t been there. My mother would’ve almost definitely had a seizure while crossing that intersection. I would’ve tried to help her, but I might have been rendered useless by the flashing lights, too. Bystanders would’ve attempted to help, but because of a lack of public knowledge about epilepsy, they might not have known exactly how to help. It may have been just as effective to put out barriers indicating the road was closed. Instead, the police cars parked in the intersection created an obstacle for those of us who have epilepsy to enjoy what was an otherwise great night.    

Though epilepsy isn’t something that is widely understood in our society, this doesn’t mean it isn’t prevalent. One in 26 people will develop epilepsy at some time in their life. And these seizures aren’t simply an inconvenience or an annoyance. Many people with epilepsy aren’t like me. Not everyone can recover as quickly after a seizure.

In some cases, people can cause substantial harm to themselves while having a seizure, such as hitting their heads on the ground and giving themselves concussions. During one of my own seizures, I fell facedown and awoke with blood staining my clothes and the ground below me. Seizures may also cause extreme physical fatigue. When regaining consciousness after a seizure, people often feel as though they have just finished running a race.

People can run into an enormous number of places with unexpected flashing lights in day-to-day life. That is why the police force should be pioneering a movement to reduce the times they utilize flashing lights. They should be the ones setting the example. This is particularly important with epilepsy, because it isn’t at the forefront of the public’s mind. People don’t consider who might have epilepsy around them before they take a picture with flash in a dark restaurant. People don’t stop and think who might be coming to a party before they turn on strobe lights. 

Of course, flashing police lights were obviously implemented in the first place for a reason. According to blogger writer Bogdan Popa at autoevolution.com, law enforcement vehicles used to only have a single light beacon on their cars “to attract everyone's attention and let them know that an official vehicle is approaching,” according to Bogdan Popa. But eventually, these alerting lights evolved into the bright, flashing lights of today, coupled with blaring sirens.

I am not asking for anything enormous. I don’t think it would be too much to ask to simply turn off the flashing lights when police direct traffic. I don’t think it would be too much to ask for the lights on a police car to not flash at all. If the lights themselves get people’s attention and indicate an official vehicle, then it stands to reason they could do without flashing entirely. Bright lights and sirens alone would appropriately identify an active police car. Changing this small detail would not only help people with epilepsy in interactions with police cars, but those without epilepsy would notice the change as well. They would wonder why these changes were made and hopefully begin to engage in an important conversation on epilepsy awareness.

I realize it isn’t possible for flashing lights not to exist in all of society. I realize people have a right to take flash photography, watch fireworks and use strobe lights. But at the same time, there has to be some sort of concession made for those of us who have epilepsy. Of all people, it seems like police officers should be the ones to draw that line. Those with epilepsy should not be relegated to their homes, unable to attend large events for fear police cars might flash their lights outside of the event.

I implore you, the Michigan State Police, to consider this out-of-sight minority. I ask you to consider who might be attending those concerts and sporting events where you direct traffic, and I want you to consider making the lights on your cruisers less potentially triggering. I believe the changes you could make would be small and would not affect your officers’ ability to do their jobs. But at the same time, these could be instrumental changes toward a wider consideration of epilepsy. At the very least, it would be something my family and I would greatly appreciate.

Hopefully heard,

Mike Persak