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Thursday, September 09, 2010

The Danger of Driving On Prescription and Over-the-Counter Drugs

Thanks to public education by anti-drunk driving campaigns, the percentage of drunk drivers on our nation’s highways has been dramatically reduced. However, a new, and just as dangerous, problem is emerging regarding drugged drivers. The problem is more extensive than one might realize because drivers are drug impaired not only on illegal drugs such as marijuana and cocaine but on prescription and common over-the-counter medications. The problem exists because many do not realize that their legally prescribed or over-the-counter medications can have a serious impact on their driving abilities.

In 2007, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) sponsored a study to gauge the amount of alcohol and drug use on US roads. In this survey, drivers were stopped at random and asked to voluntarily provide oral fluid and blood samples. The researchers were looking for the percentage of drivers who were driving with drugs that could negatively affect their driving abilities including:

  • alcohol level above the legal limitv

  • any amount of alcohol in their system

  • illegal drugs (controlled substances or illegally obtained prescription medications)

  • medications (both prescribed and over-the-counter)

The survey’s results show that:

  • 11% of daytime drivers were driving with some sort of drug in their system

  • 14.4% of night-time drivers were driving with some sort of drug in their system.

The survey also showed that, among those who showed evidence of illegal drugs in their system, there was also a higher incidence of alcohol use combined with those drugs.

Legal Medications:

Four percent of drivers showed evidence of legal medications; both prescribed and over-the-counter. While low, that percentage shows that many drivers still don’t realize the effect that medications can have on their driving. Nor do they realize that they could possibly be arrested for DUI when driving under the influence of those medications alone.

Among those who tested positive for legal medications, 6.4% also tested positive for alcohol. That leads to additional problems because of the phenomenon known as “synergism” in which the effect of the alcohol can compound the drug’s effect or vice versa. For instance, something seemingly as harmless as taking aspirin, can, because of aspirin’s effect on the blood stream, allow the alcohol and its effects to reach the brain sooner.

Prescription medications:

A prescription drug's side effects can, in some cases, severely affect a driver’s abilities to safely operate a motor vehicle. Some commonly prescribed medications and their effects are:

    Anti-depressants (Prozac, Zoloft)– These drugs regulate mood but can also affect sleep and mental clarity. Common side effects can include;

  • Anxiety, restlessness, dizziness, tremors, sleepiness, and fatigue

    Sedatives or Sleep Aids (Ambien) – Sleep aids are prescribed to combat insomnia or lack of sleep. Common side effects can include;

  • Sleep-related behaviors, memory lapses, and hallucinations including “sleep-driving”, driving while not fully awake with no memory of the event.

    Stop Smoking Aids (Chantix) – Stop smoking aids are designed to help smokers break the addiction of nicotine. Common side effects can include;

  • Neuropsychiatric symptoms including changes in behavior, hostility, agitation, depressed mood, and suicide-related events. There have been some reports of violent behavior directed towards others.

Over-the-counter medications:

    Antihistamines (Benadryl, Sudafed) – These medications are commonly taken to reduce the symptoms of colds or hay fever. Anti-histamines are divided into two groups:

  • Generation 1 - with diphenhydramine as the active ingredient

  • Generation 2 (non-drowsy) – with fexofenadine as the active ingredient
    Two different studies looking at the effects of these medications on drivers, compared with the effects of alcohol, found that those taking the “generation 1” antihistamines (Benadryl) performed worse than drivers who were legally drunk.
    Common side effects can include;

  • Dizziness, drowsiness, excitability, headache, nervousness, and restlessness.

    Cough Medicine (Robitusin) – These medications are taken to reduce coughing can, in large amounts, have a negative effect; in fact, over the past several years, they have been used as a cheap and legal way to get high. Common side effects can include;

  • severe dizziness, anxiety, restless feeling, or nervousness, confusion, and hallucinations

Any medication that includes warnings such as “May cause drowsiness” or “Do not operate machinery while taking this medication” should not be taken if you plan to drive. Consult with your doctor or pharmacist about any medication’s side effects and wait until you know how the drug is going to affect you before driving. Taking these drugs and driving could lead to a DUI or worse; injuring or killing someone in a drug impaired collision.

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