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Driver involved in fatal Tampa crash had been monitored, then cleared, by state

TAMPA — For three years, state licensing officials corresponded with a Tampa driver who had a medical issue they thought could be a danger to himself and others.

Midway, the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles revoked driver Eric Dewayne McNeil's license, saying his condition made driving unsafe.

But in December, in a short letter, the state agency set him free to drive. No followup reports needed, a letter states.

McNeil, Tampa police say, lost consciousness at the wheel Friday, ran a red light on Hills­borough Avenue and crashed into a minivan, killing Nancy and Webster Farns­worth and injuring their 3-year-old granddaughter, Kaylee.

It was a crash similar to one on Sept. 25, 2007, just three blocks away but with a far less tragic conclusion. In that crash, police say, McNeil blacked out while behind the wheel. He drove into oncoming traffic before careening into a lot and hitting two parked cars.

A witness to that crash, Fontaine St. Fleur, said Tuesday he remembers watching it in disbelief. When told about last week's fatal collision, his first question about McNeil was: "Why was he allowed to drive?"

"It's unfortunate because the medical issue probably is not his fault," St. Fleur, 22, said. "But for the safety of others, it should be addressed."

It was being addressed for several years. A month after the 2007 crash, McNeil got a letter from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

Sent from the Medical Review Section, the letter states the department was concerned McNeil might have a medical issue that could impair his driving. It told McNeil to have a physician fill out an enclosed form and to mail treatment records from his post-crash hospital visit.

The letter, obtained by the St. Petersburg Times on Tuesday, was followed by nine more over three years. Though the redacted versions provided by the state do not explicitly discuss McNeil's condition because of medical privacy laws, they paint a picture of a man with a medical issue that warranted state monitoring.

According to his sister, Evette McNeil, the 42-year-old Tampa man suffers occasional seizures, in times of stress and fatigue.

Whether that was discussed in the state's correspondence is unclear, but the letters show that within several months of the first letter, McNeil's case had been reviewed and he was cleared to drive for six months, at which time the state wanted another report from McNeil's physician.

McNeil didn't send in that information, another letter states, so his license was temporarily revoked in November 2008. A month later, another letter states the board reviewed McNeil's case and saw an issue of concern in his records.

"They indicated you are unsafe to drive due to your medical condition," the letter states.

McNeil petitioned the board to review additional documents a few months later, and at the end June 2009 his license was reinstated.

It was temporarily revoked a year later when he didn't send state officials the paperwork they wanted for another review. But he got it back in December 2010.

"No followup reports are required," the state agency wrote.

That's when the letters stopped. He was cleared, free to keep his license.

Police say they're investigating if Friday's crash was more than a tragic accident and whether criminal charges are warranted. They said McNeil was insured.

McNeil could not be reached for comment.

It's unclear what information the state was working with each time the Medical Review Section made a decision. McNeil's medical forms are not public record, said department spokeswoman Ann Howard.

She wouldn't speak specifically about McNeil's case but said, in general, the seven specialists in the Medical Review Section often require a physician evaluation. She also said the department doesn't require everyone who suffers seizures to be seizure-free for a specific period of time.

"Our requirement is that you be safe to drive," she said. "And each case is different."

Each state has its own laws regarding the licensing of drivers. But the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a national nonprofit agency that writes "best practice" recommendations, suggests that state agencies not allow any drivers with a history of seizures to have an unconditional license.

Yet that's what McNeil's driving record shows he had at the time of Friday's fatal crash, save a requirement he wear corrective lenses.

But whether because of the redactions or because it never was discussed, none of the state records provided to the Times mentions any issues with seizures. So it's unclear if either McNeil or his doctor ever reported that.

"We don't know what he told the doctor," said Kevin Lewis, director of driver programs for the AAMVA. "If the driver himself knew he was having seizures, perhaps the responsibility should have been for him to quit driving."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at jvandervelde@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Driver involved in fatal Tampa crash had been monitored, then cleared, by state 10/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 25, 2011 10:31pm]
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