Driver Beware: Certain Medications Can Impair Your Ability Behind the Wheel
“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 RisksMost 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
Use Caution With These MedicationsMany 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
- 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
Precautions You Can TakeIn many states, it is illegal to drive while under the influence of sedating medications. But it’s important to take precautions when taking any medication. Here are some tips:
- Educate yourself about the side effects of any medication (prescription or over-the-counter) or herbal supplement you take by reading the instructions carefully. Consult with your doctor or pharmacist before taking any new medication, and ask about possible effects on driving and what precautions you should take.
- If you are taking multiple medications or mixing medications with herbal substances, ask your doctor and pharmacist about possible interactions and side effects that could impair your driving.
- If you feel that your medication has impaired your ability to drive in any way (you feel dizzy, drowsy, light-headed, “fuzzy,” or are having visual problems), have someone else drive.
- If you plan on driving, look for over-the-counter medications that do not cause drowsiness or other side effects that could impair driving.
- Keep track of what medications are causing specific side effects that cause impairment.
- Allow your body time to adjust to new or changes in medications.
- Ask your doctor if there is an alternative to any prescription medication that is impairing your ability to drive.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
United States Food and Drug Administration
Canadian Pharmacists Association
The College of Family Physicians of Canada
Driver education program. Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles website. Available at: http://www.massrmv.com/rmv/jol/DriverEducationProgram.pdf. Accessed June 11, 2014.
Driving when you are taking medications. National Highway Traffic Administration website. Available at: http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/olddrive/medications/index.htm. Accessed June 11, 2014.
Medication and driving. AARP website. Available at: http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/info-05-2010/Medication%5Fand%5FDriving.html. Accessed June 11, 2014.
Some medications and driving don't mix. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/downloads/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm107902.pdf. Accessed June 11, 2014.
- Reviewer: Michael Woods, MD
- Review Date: 06/2014
- Update Date: 06/11/2014