We worry about drunk drivers, drowsy drivers, and other risk-takers on the highways, such as drugged drivers. Driving under the influence of prescription drugs can be deadly. Medications act on systems in the brain that impair driving ability. Warnings against the operation of machinery (including motor vehicles) for a specific time after use are included with the medications. How many pay attention to those warnings? If prescription drugs are taken without medical supervision (i.e., when abused), impaired driving and other harmful outcomes can happen.
Drugs acting on the brain can alter perception, cognition, attention, balance, coordination, reaction time, and other faculties required for safe driving. The effects of specific drugs of abuse differ depending on their mechanisms of action, the amount consumed, and the history of the user. The principal concern regarding drugged driving is that driving under the influence of any drug that acts on the brain could impair one’s motor skills, reaction time, and judgment.
Behavioral effects of these medications vary widely, depending not only on the drug, but on the person taking it. Anti-anxiety drugs can dull alertness and slow reaction time. Others, like stimulants, can encourage risk-taking and alter the ability to judge distances. Mixing prescriptions or taking them with alcohol can worsen impairment and sharply increase the risk of crashing.
One example of a tragedy caused by a drugged driver is of a young lady riding her bicycle who was hit and killed by a drugged driver. Police thought the driver had been drinking, as her speech was slow and slurred. Rather than drinking, she told police that she had taken several prescription medications, including a sedative and muscle relaxant. Police also said she did not stop after hitting the girl, until later when she crashed into another vehicle down the road. She was charged with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of drugs.
Many states recognize drivers may be driving under the influence, but not from alcohol. They consider any drug that causes one to fail a field sobriety test to be cause for getting a DUI arrest. Unlike alcohol, there is no agreement on what level of drugs in the blood impairs driving. Setting a limit for prescription medications is more difficult, because the chemistry of drugs’ effects are harder to predict that alcohol’s. Some drugs may linger in the body for days. Anyone who is taking prescription medications and knows how the particular medication affects them, should stay off the roads.
It is now time that we recognize and address the dangers that can occur with drugged driving, a dangerous activity that puts us all at risk. Drugged driving is a public health concern because it puts not only the driver at risk, but also passengers and others who share the road.