Driving Under the Influence of Prescription Drugs

Traditionally, driving under the influence meant that an individual was drinking alcohol or using illegal drugs before getting behind the wheel of a car. While this activity is illegal, it continues to take place and individuals are putting lives – both their own and others on the road – in jeopardy.

A new phenomenon is emerging – or at least finally getting attention – as older adults are driving under the influence without being aware that medications they are taking are causing any kind of affect on their ability to drive, make decisions or react in specific situations.

Many of these older adults are taking anything from painkillers to beta-blockers, which can impair their ability to drive. Such medications are known to cause dizziness, sleepiness and even disorientation. Seniors – who are more likely to take such medications – are rarely aware of these risks and readily get behind the wheel.

This finding is according to a recent report by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. In conducting its research, the group found that out of 630 individuals, all 55 years of age or older, 92 percent still drove a car and 69 percent were taking at least one prescription medication that could impair their driving.

For those on such medications, 80 percent had not been warned about the possible impact these drugs could have on driving. Of those who were taking a minimum of five of these potentially impairing drugs (roughly 10 percent of participants), only 22 percent had some awareness of the side effects that drugs could have on them whether they were driving or not. The remaining individuals were simply unaware when they got behind the wheel.

Even more alarming was the fact that as the age of the individual increased – as well as the likelihood of taking more medications – the awareness of the potential side effects of the medications decreased. This finding adds more weight to the argument that older individuals present an increased risk while driving a motor vehicle.

AAA Foundation president, Peter Kissinger noted that this lack of knowledge about the risks associated with medications is worrisome. He noted that those in the health care industry are failing to effectively communicate known risks when certain medications are prescribed to an individual. Even if the information is included in pharmacy paperwork, most patients are not reading this information and it must be communicated during the office visit.

Data on the number of vehicle accidents caused by individuals under the influence of legal drugs is not yet available as people are not tested for medications like they would be for alcohol or illegal substances after a wreck. Capturing this information, however, could help make the roads safer and lend to better communication when prescription medications are given to the older generation.

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