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Do You Know How Your Medicine Affects Your Driving?

Taking certain prescription drugs can impair driving and increase the risk of a road accident.

Are you taking medicines that might make you a dangerous driver? Most people now realize that driving and drinking do not mix. Alcohol impairs judgment and slows reaction times. It’s illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol. Because of public awareness, driving while intoxicated has dropped dramatically over the last several decades.

What Is the Effect of Medication on Driving?

A new study shows that many people are unaware of the potential risks of common medications (Pollini, Waehrer & Kelley-Baker, Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, online, Oct. 31, 2017). Data from the National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use demonstrate that one driver in five had taken a medicine that might interfere with alertness or reaction time in the previous two days. These included sleep aids, anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, narcotic pain relievers and stimulant medications used to treat attention difficulties.

Had People Been Warned About the Dangers?

Eighty-five percent of the drivers who reported taking narcotics or sedatives said they had been warned that these might be dangerous for driving. But many people taking antidepressants, sleeping pills, muscle relaxants or stimulants did not realize there was a serious risk. Perhaps it is time for health professionals to emphasize that many medications can be just as dangerous as alcohol when it comes to driving.

A different study published earlier this year showed that people involved in “minor injury crashes” were five times more likely to be taking sedating prescription drugs than to be drinking alcohol (Brubacher et al, Journal of Emergency Medicine, May 2017). Despite the designation of minor injuries, more than half of these emergency room patients were still having difficulties six months after their accidents. Unfortunately, many continued with their risky driving behavior and almost five percent had been involved in another crash in the ensuing six months.

Sleeping Pills and Risky Driving:

Most people realize that you should not drive right after taking a sleeping pill. But few seem to take into account the likelihood that taking a medicine like zolpidem (Ambien, Edluar, Intermezzo) can affect driving ability the following day. One study found that women and older drivers taking zolpidem were more likely to be involved in an automobile accident (Booth et al, Sleep Medicine, April 2016). These findings were confirmed by a Swedish study showing a link between such sleep medicines and road traffic crashes (Nevriana et al, CNS Drugs, Aug. 2017).

Older People and Medicines That Affect Driving:

Older people may be especially vulnerable to the effects of medicine on reflexes, judgment and other components of safe driving. In a clinic evaluating seniors for their ability to drive safely, more than two-thirds were found to be taking drugs that might reduce alertness and reaction time (Hetland et al, Annals of Pharmacotherapy, April 2014). Some of the medicines with negative effects might surprise you. They include:

  • SSRI drugs such as fluoxetine, paroxetine or sertraline
  • PPI heartburn medicines such as esomeprazole, lansoprazole or omeprazole
  • Diabetes drugs that lower blood sugar
  • Anticonvulsant medications
  • Drugs for Parkinson’s disease
  • Bupropion
  • Benzodiazepines such as alprazolam, diazepam or lorazepam
  • Opioid analgesics
  • Non-benzo sleep aids such as eszopiclone, zaleplon or zolpidem
  • Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline or nortriptyline

and others.

Read More About Sleep Driving:

You have heard about sleep walking. What about sleep driving? Here are some links to articles you may find shocking:

FDA Warns that Morning-After Hazards from Sleeping Pills Could Make Driving Dangerous

Daughter Traumatized by Driving Zombie

Sleep-Driving is Danger with Ambien

Share your own experience with medications that have affected your driving ability below in the comment section.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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