The hazards of driving while intoxicated are well-publicized and facts are widely available. Yet many people drive after taking prescription pain medications, sedatives, and psychotropic medications like antidepressants. Others drive after using illegal drugs. Even some over-the-counter medications can impair a driver, especially an older person. Medicated driving is essentially the same as intoxicated driving, and in some cases, can cause a more serious impairment than alcohol. In this article, we will give some facts about medicated driving and why we will likely see the number of arrests due to medicated driving increase.
About the Brain
The human brain is a fascinating and complex organ, capable of nearly instantaneous responses. The frontal lobes of the brain control decision-making and judgment, while other parts of the brain recognize patterns, colors and sounds, process information and interact with other sensory organs like the eyes and ears. As you drive, your brain receives sensory data, prioritizes information, recalls similar past experiences, anticipates possible scenarios, analyzes and considers various options, and synchronizes movements to steer the car, brake, shift or accelerate. Many medications can affect one or more of these activities.
Age Makes A Difference
One of the more surprising facts uncovered about medicated driving is that age can make a big difference. Drivers at both ends of the age spectrum face some particular risks. In one study, 78 percent of drivers between the ages of 56 and 93 were taking one or more medications, yet less than a third knew of the risks medications posed to their driving ability. Only 18 percent had received education or warnings from their doctors about the potential risks of medicated driving. Young drivers have less driving experience and are more likely to act impulsively. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 20-year-olds, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Health statistics. For either young or older drivers, medications that case even a minor degree of impairment can be the same as driving while intoxicated.
Prescription Pain Medications And The Impact On Driving Safety
Prescription pain medications (narcotics) affect the central nervous system and can sedate the brain. A person who has taken pain medications may have slowed reaction times or poor judgment, either of which can cause an accident. Narcotics like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, fentanyl, morphine, tramadol and morphine — also called opioid pain relievers — can have the same effect on the brain as drinking alcohol. They may also cause drowsiness. If combined with alcohol, psychotropic medications, sedatives or some over-the-counter medicines, the effects are magnified.
Psychotropic medications are used to help people who have mental illnesses or conditions like depression and anxiety. Some psychotropic medications — like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications — have sedative effects. Others — like medications used for ADHD — are stimulants. Either type of medication affects the brain, but different medications affect different parts of the brain. For example, benzodiazapines, also known as tranquilizers, include familiar medications like Valium and Xanax. These medications affect chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Common side effects of benzodiazapines include drowsiness, confusion, irritability, aggression and memory impairment — all of which can affect a person’s ability to drive safely.
Illegal drugs are another source of medicated driving but is also referred to often as drugged driving. The 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found approximately 9.9 million people reported driving under the influence of one or more illicit drugs in the year prior to the survey. Marijuana, for example, affects the control of body movements, coordination, balance, memory and judgment. Studies have shown that a driver who has used marijuana is less attentive and that the drug affects the driver/s perception of time and speed. Cocaine, on the other hand, stimulates the brain and can cause euphoria, which also affects a driver’s judgment. A driver on cocaine is more likely to take unnecessary risks without considering possible consequences.
Prescription medications are not the only potential problem when it comes to medicated driving. Many over-the-counter medications can also cause problems. One of the most common side effects of antihistamines is drowsiness. In one study, people who had taken diphenhydramine (brand name Benadryl) had more problems on a simulated driving test then when drinking alcohol. Drivers on diphenhydramine strayed out of their lanes more frequently and had worse steering control. Researchers also found that drivers who had taken diphenhydramine didn’t realize the degree to which the medication impaired their driving abilities. Cold and cough medications like NyQuil can also cause drowsiness. Medications used to control diarrhea or stop nausea can also make some people sleepy.
Other Medication Issues
Opioid and psychotropic medications directly affect the brain, so their ability to impair driving is not surprising. However, other medications that don’t directly affect the brain can also cause problems. Medications like ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers, which are used for high blood pressure, can cause drowsiness or make people dizzy. Medications used for Parkinson’s disease can affect muscle movement and coordination. Others may affect vision or reaction time. The bottom line is that nearly any medication, whether prescribed, over-the-counter, or an illegal substance, has the potential to affect people’s ability to drive. When a medication is combined with alcohol, mental illness, early dementia, or other medical conditions, the risks go up. When a person is taking more than one medication, the possibility of medication interactions also increases and may increase the risk of impaired driving. Medicated driving is often unsafe driving, and the driver may be unaware of the impairment.
You can help protect yourself from the risks of medicated driving. Never take a medication unless you really need it. Don’t take another person’s medications — doctors base the dose on a person’ size, age, medical condition and response to medicine; you could easily take too much. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the potential side effects of a medication. Pharmacists are also a good resource for information about over-the-counter medications and their potential side effects. Never combine medications with alcohol, and don’t use illegal drugs.
Protect Your Loved Ones
Parents and adult children can also help protect their loved ones. In the case of teens, monitor behavior. If your teen shows signs of using illegal drugs, take action immediately. Many teens believe the risks of using marijuana are minor, and are not knowledgeable about the effects of other illegal drugs. Accurate information may help to dispel these unfounded opinions. As people age, their reaction times may slow. Medications can make this problem worse. Be alert for parents who seem to have coordination problems or who are forgetful. Early dementia can affect driving ability; when combined with medication side effects, the potential for impaired driving increases.
Sources used during research of this article: