It’s not uncommon for motorists to take medications that could compromise their ability to drive safely, often against the counsel of their physicians. Nearly half of the drivers in a recent survey admitted they used one or more potentially impairing medications before driving.
Those are the main results of a new study released on Thursday by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit research and education association, that found that doctors’ orders are often ineffective or ignored by drivers.
“Our research finds that many drivers are taking one or more potentially impairing medications before getting behind the wheel,” David Yang, executive director of the AAA Foundation, said in a statement. “It is important for medical professionals to offer clear consultation to their patients of the possible risks and ensure they understand them.”
The report, “Use of Potentially Impairing Medications in Relation to Driving, United States, 2021” was based on the responses of 2,657 drivers in a national survey conducted by the AAA Foundation.
The study focused on commonly used medications, both prescription and over-the-counter, that have the potential to impair driving, like antihistamines, cough medicines, antidepressants, pain medicines, muscle relaxants, sleep aids, and amphetamines. These medications, used by respondents in the 30 day period before the survey questions were asked, can put drivers at risk by causing dizziness, nausea, sleepiness, blurred vision, slowed reaction time, and attention problems.
The proportion of drivers who reported driving after use was highest among those who said they used amphetamines, like Adderall and Dexedrine.
During the 30-day period before respondents participated in the survey:
- Nearly half (45%) of those who reported using one or more potentially driver impairing medication admitted to getting behind the wheel within two hours of using at least one medication.
- 63% of people who reported taking two or more potentially driver impairing medications drove within two hours of a dose, though not necessarily at the same time.
- 71% of drivers who reported taking three or more potentially driver impairing medications drove within two hours of a dose, also not necessarily at the same time.
The proportion of people who chose to drive was higher among those taking multiple medications, and many who took these medications were not warned by their healthcare provider regarding the possible dangerous impact on driving.
According to the study, 20%-50% of drivers received no warning from a healthcare provider that the medication could impact their ability to drive. However, those who received a warning were 18% less likely to get behind the wheel after use.
The researchers said that while the medications can have potential effects that can be dangerous when mixed with driving, not all drivers who reported taking them were impaired, and the impact on individuals can vary. In addition, the study noted, it’s possible that some drivers who are prescribed or purchase these medications may not be aware of how they could impact driving ability.
The AAA recommends the following tips to maximize safe driving:
- Don’t underestimate the risks of using medications—Driving under the influence of over-the-counter and prescription drug medications can impact decision making, which makes it unsafe to operate a vehicle.
- Be responsible and have a plan– Like driving after drinking, driving while under the influence of drugs can get you arrested. It’s important to fully understand the side effects of your medications before driving. Find a designated driver if it’s not safe to be behind the wheel.
- Be aware of options—With advice from your doctor or pharmacist, you can most likely treat your medical condition successfully to stay healthy and maintain the ability to drive safely. For example, time doses to avoid periods when you need to drive, adjust how much medication you take, or explore alternative medications that treat symptoms without causing impairment.
- Be your own advocate – Be proactive by asking the doctor or pharmacist how the medications could affect driving ability and how to avoid those risks while treating their medical condition.
- Do your research– Read the warnings, heed them, or consult a pharmacist for advice when using over-the-counter medications to find ways to preserve safe driving capabilities.
It’s possible for people to maintain their independence behind the wheel and use medications needed to stay healthy, but not without guidance, Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research, said in a statement.
Consistent and clear consultation to patients to ensure that they understand the possible dangers of mixing prescribed and over-the-counter medications with driving is essential.
“Our research suggests too few medical professionals provide these warnings or suggest ways patients can navigate this tough challenge,” Nelson added.
Click here to read the full report.