Driver Beware: Certain Medications Can Impair Your Ability Behind the Wheel

IMAGE “Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine goes down,” the old song says. Just a spoonful of medicine at the wrong time, and your driving skills could go down. Such was the unfortunate reality of Doug, a 56-year-old accountant who had taken an over-the-counter cold medication before driving to visit a client. He didn’t know that the medication he took would make him drowsy until he woke up in his car in a deep ditch by the side of the road.

Many Consumers Unaware of Risks

Most consumers are aware of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol or illicit drugs, but many don’t realize that certain prescription and over-the-counter medications can also impair driving. Certain drugs can interfere with factors that are essential for safe driving, such as:
  • Coordination —needed for steering, braking, accelerating, and manipulating the vehicle
  • Reaction time —needed to respond in time and appropriately deal with certain situations
  • Judgment —helps with risk assessment, avoidance of hazards, and emergency decision-making
  • Tracking —helps to stay in the lane and maintain the correct distance from other cars and obstacles
  • Attention —ability to handle the high demand for information-processing
  • Perception —needed for glare resistance, dark and light adaptation, and dynamic visual acuity
The effects of medications can vary among people. They are often influenced by length of use, tolerance, overall health, individual sensitivity to the drug, metabolism, age, interactions with other medications, and other factors. For instance, elderly persons process some medications differently than younger adults, which could cause these drugs to affect them more profoundly.

Use Caution With These Medications

Many medications—particularly those that affect the central nervous system—can impair your ability to drive. They may have side effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, or diminished motor or judgment skills. Such medications may include:
  • Pain relievers with codeine or other opiates
  • Muscle relaxants
  • Sedatives and tranquilizers
  • Anticonvulsants
  • Drugs used to treat high blood pressure
  • Some medications used to treat depression or anxiety
  • Over-the-counter medications containing antihistamines such as diphenhydramine, brompheniramine, or chlorpheniramine. These medication can be found in products to treat:
    • Allergies symtpoms
    • Colds symptoms
    • Motion sickness
  • Central nervous system stimulants
  • Medications administered to the eye, which can alter vision

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