Alcohol presents a severe danger to drivers and other people on the road. Drunk driving has gained national attention for its frequency and its consequences. Less attention is paid to the other kind of driving under the influence. Prescription drugs have the potential to powerfully influence the human body and mind. As such, the deadly consequences of taking medication and driving should be noted.
The death of Kathryn Underdown in 2010 threw a spotlight on the effects of prescription drugs and their influence on dangerous driving. A car hit Underdown as she was biking and it continued driving until it hit another car in traffic. During an interview after the incident, the driver displayed slurred speech and difficulty staying awake. While the driver was not drunk, she had taken several muscle relaxers and was charged with vehicular manslaughter and driving under the influence of drugs.
Law enforcement officials are vexed when it comes to dealing with the increasing commonality of driving under the influence of prescription medication. Currently, there is no definite line for measuring the level of impairment due to prescription drugs. Some of these medications are necessary for regular use and affect some people more strongly than others.
“How do we balance between people who legitimately need their prescriptions and protecting the public?” said Mark Neil, senior lawyer at the National Traffic Law Center, which works with prosecutors. “It becomes a very delicate balance.”
Even if lawmakers created rules prohibiting any kind of drug in the system while driving, it would be unfair for sober users still having these substances in their system days or even weeks after prior consumption.
While prosecutors attest to new spurts of cases involving drugged drivers, only the most egregious incidents have a good chance of returning a “guilty” verdict from the jury. This is likely due to the rampant use of prescription drugs both legally and illegally.
“Whether it’s Lipitor or allergy pills or whatever it might be, [the jury] might think, ‘I don’t want that to become criminal,’” said Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler.
While governments scramble to decide some of these tricky cases, the fight against drugged driving can take place on a personal level. Each drug, whether it is a muscle relaxer, painkiller or other prescription substance, comes with side effects that can inhibit the senses. The Food and Drug Administration recommends users stay wary when taking anxiety medications, sleeping pills, tranquilizers, certain antidepressants and products containing codeine, among others.
If a person is taking codeine or other medications and must drive, the FDA urges consumers to take only the amount prescribed by a health care professional. Patients should discuss all possible side effects with his or her doctor. It is especially important to talk to the prescriber if the medication is hurting quality of life or is presenting any kind of danger. Doctors can adjust the dose or prescribe an alternative treatment plan.
When it comes to taking something newly prescribed, it is best to honestly communicate with medical professionals about all drugs, prescription or not, that are being taken. As emphasized by the FDA, drug interactions are a complex concept best explained by a medical professional. Finding friends, family – even a driving service – can eliminate any risk of accident when getting from point A to point B when taking medication.
Since prescription drugs are consumed legally by patients on a daily basis, some users can fall into a false sense of security. Remain vigilant when taking these powerful, mind-altering drugs and seek help if use spirals out of control.