Are Drivers Aware That Medication Can Affect Their Driving?

By Victoria Kim 11/07/17

A new study examined whether drivers who take prescription drugs were aware of the medicine's impact on their ability to drive safely.

young man driving a car

According to a new study, not enough Americans realize that their medication is affecting their driving. It’s another reason why we should be more cautious about the effects of certain prescription drugs, say the researchers from the Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University. 

The study, published in the November issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, reported that 1 in 5 Americans who use prescription drugs “are unaware that their meds make it more difficult for them to drive safely,” according to the Minnesota Post.

The study analyzed anonymous data of 7,405 drivers who participated in the 2013-2014 National Roadside Survey. It found that nearly 20% of the drivers reported taking “at least one potentially impairing prescription drug” in the two days prior. 

Although 78% of respondents said they received a prescription from a doctor, many of them were unaware of the side effects that could impair their driving, especially when it came to stimulants and antidepressants. “Drugs most commonly perceived as affecting safe driving were sleep aids followed by morphine/codeine, other amphetamines and muscle relaxants,” say the researchers.

And even when the drivers were informed of the risks of driving under the influence of prescription medication like antidepressants, stimulants, sedatives and opioids, they still weren’t convinced that their driving would be affected.

“At least one study demonstrated that patients using drugs affecting the central nervous system poorly predicted their level of driving impairment, suggesting that drivers may not be able to accurately assess the risks of driving while using these medications,” according to the researchers.

They say that raising awareness of these risks is important and effective, with doctors being the first line of defense. 

In a July 2017 report by CBS News, Columbia University researcher Stanford Chihuri warned, “The significant increase in proportion of drivers who test positive for prescription pain medications is an urgent public health concern,” pointing to increases in the number of prescriptions for oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine, which quadrupled from 1991 to 2014.

One particularly dramatic example of the dangers of driving under the influence of opioids (painkillers) played out in Northern California during the summer of 2016. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time that a woman named Renee Hogan had been so high on painkillers that she unwittingly sparked the Willow Fire, a wildfire that burned 450 acres and damaged a house.

Hogan reportedly started the fire as she was driving on the highway, unaware that she had a flat tire. By the time she could be stopped by another driver, she’d driven through her flat tire and “three inches” of the metal rim, spraying “hot sparks” and igniting the grass along the highway.

In March, Hogan was sentenced to 364 days in county jail and five years of probation for charges related to the fire and driving under the influence.

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr