Why the government should implement a prescription medication threshold for driving

Prescription medication isn’t all that uncommon. People take prescription drugs for variety of reasons, including the treatment of allergies, high blood pressure, anxiety, cold, depression, pain and many others. According to the CDCP (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention), between 2007 and 2010, nearly half of Americans used at least one prescription drug. The most used prescription drugs among the population are antihyperlipidemics, analgesics and antidepressants.

With nearly half of Americans taking prescription drugs, bringing attention to the possible dangers of driving while medicated seems to be the optimal decision and translating it into a law might be greatly beneficial to traffic safety.

Federal Highway Administration research indicates that in 2006, 84.1 percent of the U.S. population are licensed drivers. For many people, driving is an integral part of their lives, giving them independence and freedom of movement, while for some, driving is economically very significant, either in terms of getting to work or driving for a living.

Considering the statistics above, it is unrealistic to answer the question of law and prescription medication in one sweeping statement calling for a complete ban, nor is it prudent to leave it unconsidered and undiscussed.

It’s important to note that not all prescription drugs have the same side effects, nor are they used for the same purposes. Equally, not every single person will react to the same medicine in the same way. While the warnings do exists on the bottles and medicine packaging, the matter of driving while taking medication is rarely discussed or highlighted when speaking about the dangers of driving under the influence.

Some of the prescription medications create similar effects to that of alcohol. Driving under the influence of such medications can lead to low concentration, nausea, dizziness, blurred vision and slower reaction times which can be hazardous on the road. At present, it is left up to the individual to determine if he or she is fit to operate a vehicle. 

In the United Kingdom, for example, if the person is unfit through drugs, it is illegal to drive under the influence of prescription and over-the-counter medicines. The law itself does not distinguish legal from illegal drugs when it comes to operating a vehicle, and the person driving (or attempting to drive) while unfit, under the influence of prescription medication, will be as liable as someone under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs in terms of road hazard.  

Raising the awareness

The general public is overwhelmingly aware that driving under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol is dangerous and harmful, yet it is rare that such is considered when speaking about prescription medication and controlled substances. Currently, driving while impaired generally falls into DUI category which majority of people connect with alcohol intoxication or illegal drugs, yet rarely with prescription medication and controlled substances. It is thus important, to firstly raise awareness of the possible effects of driving while medicated and establish who exactly would be most at risk and why. Bringing this to the greater attention of the public would be beneficial in educating the populace and bringing to attention the fact that, for example, even over-the-counter cough medicines can cause drowsiness and impair the person from driving safely.

Leaflets supplied with medication might not be clear enough: ”Do not drive if feeling drowsy” is rather a broad statement. What it means to be drowsy will vary from person to person. Similarly, this can be compared to alcohol – a person might feel okay to drive but in reality might not be fit to do so. 

It isn’t uncommon for people to drink alcohol and take prescription medication. Alcohol might not interfere with all prescription medication in terms of effectiveness, but it might amplify their side effects even if the ingested alcohol amount is below the driving threshold. One such example can be seen with an antibiotic Metronidazole. Metronizadole is believed to be able to block the body’s break down of alcohol, causing the effects of extreme intoxication even if a very small amount of alcohol is taken. 

It is thus very important that there is a campaign of public awareness surrounding prescription medication and driving before the implementation of law.

Prescription medication and the law

Driving under the influence of alcohol or illegal drugs can and does cause collisions – many fatal. If laws exist in place to prevent operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol, then a law should exist in place preventing those taking any substances which can alter person’s judgement, perception or ability to be clear-minded, albeit controlled, from operating a vehicle as well. Some of the antidepressant drugs, as previously mentioned, do have certain side effects which are similar to that of alcohol intoxication. Considering this, in the United States, 31 percent of all car accidents are caused by drivers who were driving under the influence of alcohol.

It is, however, important to highlight that a broad restriction on driving while on medication would not be suitable nor enforceable. Equally, allowing the prescription medication drug driving to go unchecked isn’t a lasting solution either considering that the usage of prescription drugs in America is on the rise. Referring back the previous statistic mentioned in the article, nearly half of Americans take at least one prescription drug. Implementing a broad law, such as one for alcohol or illegal drugs would stop nearly half of American population from driving. Indefinitely. Taking lessons from alcohol consumption, this wouldn’t necessary stop people from driving, but it may lead some people to stop taking their medication in order to drive, both of which are dangerous and damaging. It is also worth considering that certain people might find themselves in a uncomfortable situations, specifically those who depend on driving for their livelihood, income or those whose freedom of movement might be restricted.

The opposing stance of such a law should be considered as well. While people can chose to drink or take recreational drugs and drive, for many people choosing whether to take medication or not isn’t an option. Not taking the prescribed medication can be harmful to people’s health and well-being and the health and well-being of those around them, thus great care should be taken when considering what kind of law should be implemented.

The solution

According to the FDA, most medications don’t affect driving ability; however some do. Supporting the idea that some law should exist in place for the prescription medication and driving, one of the positive solutions is for the government to establish the intake threshold for each controlled drug, including ‘zero.’ Much like with alcohol content in the blood, the law should be put in place marking the acceptable micrograms per litre of any said drug in the system, which would be considered acceptable level for driving. 

If a person is taking 2 or more prescription drugs, it may be that each of the drug by itself does not impair the driving ability, but when taken together, can be considered a risk. This would be up to the doctors and pharmacists to confirm with the patient. In addition, doctors could be asked to adjust the medication for those drugs which may cause unwanted side effects in order for the driver to be safe to drive.

As already established, many medications would be exempt from the threshold if they do not affect driving ability, but those that do, should be controlled in terms of how much one can ingest and be fit to drive. 

Driving is a complex skill and it requires concentration and clear-mindedness to be carried out safely. On the road, it isn’t only a driver who is at risk, but everyone else around them. High alertness is vital for all drivers as no matter how careful one imagines themselves to be, there might be others out there who aren’t as alert or careful.