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Legitimately Dangerous

Drivers must know the risks of prescription
and OTC medications.

Alcohol and illegal substances get much of the attention when it comes to drugged driving, but many drivers may not realize that the medications they are taking can seriously impact safety behind the wheel. And it's not just prescription medications, but over-the-counter, or OTC, products as well.

Legal drug use is on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control, nearly half of Americans report taking one or more prescription drugs in the past month, with one-third taking two or more. A report by the Kaiser Family Foundation indicates the average number of prescriptions dispensed annually per person has increased more than 60 percent since the early 1990s, rising from less than eight per person in 1993 to 12.6 in 2010.

While the misuse and abuse of prescription medications in the United States remains high, few people are aware of the gravity of the problem. Consider that a recent survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety revealed only 28 percent of drivers consider driving under the influence of prescription drugs a “very serious threat,” when compared to alcohol (66 percent) and illegal drugs (56 percent). Only 35 percent of drivers report self-regulating their driving when they believe medications would affect their ability to drive safely, according to results from a 2012 roadside survey of California drivers conducted by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

“A lot of drivers potentially don't realize they're putting themselves and others at risk,” said AAA Traffic Safety Advocacy & Research Director Jake Nelson. “You are your own best advocate. Talk to your doctor, get to know your pharmacist, and be aware of the effects medications you're taking can have on your driving ability.”

While laws differ from state to state, Nelson also said drivers can be charged with a DUI if caught driving hazardously while taking prescription or OTC meds.

Many legal drugs have side effects that vary widely not only by the drug, but also by the person taking it. These drugs can impair driving abilities by dulling alertness, increasing anxiety, or blurring vision. Mixing prescriptions, or taking them while consuming alcohol or illicit drugs, can exacerbate impairment and sharply increase the risk of crashing.

Benzodiazepines, which are prescribed for anxiety or sleep disorders, and opiates, often used for pain relief, are the two prescription drugs most commonly found in accidents involving fatalities or serious injuries. Some types of antidepressants can increase the risk of a crash by more than 40 percent. Diphenhydramine, an ingredient found in many OTC cold and allergy medications, has been shown to severely impair the ability to follow at a safe distance and maintain speed and lane position. In fact, a single dose of diphenhydramine can have the same effect as being above the legal blood-alcohol limit.

To help educate the public about these risks, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has developed Roadwise Rx, a free tool drivers can use to see the potential effects of medications and interactions with other medications, supplements, and common foods.

Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Mark Rosekind said it's important for health care providers and pharmacies to help reduce risks of these medications.

“Nurses, doctors, and pharmacists need to understand the risks. It's a huge gap in the process, but there also are opportunities through better education and cooperation with federal and other organizations.

“Certain pharmacies have recently taken cigarettes out of their stores. It would be great if a huge pharmacy chain would take on drowsy driving, for example, and make that a big push.”

If you are taking a medication that affects your driving ability, talk with your physician about alternative medications or dosage adjustments. Be open with your medical team and enlist them as partners in safety.

Staying safe behind the wheel shouldn't be a bitter pill to swallow.

Kevin Adams is a contributor from Orlando, Fla

Image in Title: © Gorohov


A Simple Roadwise Rx Exercise

Walnut Room

Using Roadwise Rx is easy to do. Simply launch the website and type in the name of your medications – prescription and over-the-counter – by its brand or generic name. Roadwise Rx will provide you with a list of matching medications from which you can select. Roadwise Rx will list your medications' side effects, in addition to showing you potential interactions the medications may have and how these could affect your ability to drive safely. Take the results to your doctor or pharmacist for discussion.

For illustration purposes, we launched Roadwise Rx and typed in three common prescription and OTC drugs: Crestor, a prescription drug taken to lower cholesterol levels; Glyburide, a prescription drug to control insulin levels; and acetaminophen, an OTC pain reliever. While there were no harmful interactions to report, there were four driver warnings that occurred. The drugs' side effects may affect your abilities to concentrate, maintain control of the vehicle, or stay alert.

Acetaminophen and Crestor: Trouble staying alert/awake
Glyburide and Acetaminophen: Difficulty concentrating on the road
Acetaminophen and Crestor: Difficulty maintaining vehicle control
Acetaminophen and Crestor: Changes in demeanor

Of course, side effects vary between individuals, but by being aware of any possible issues, you can remain safe behind the wheel and on the road.

November/December 2015 Issue



Roadwise Rx is found online at Just click on the link for Roadwise Rx found on the home page.

Ask the AAA Safety Experts


Two-thirds of senior drivers age 65 and older take five or more daily medications that can affect their ability to drive safely. Experts from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety weigh in on commonly asked questions concerning medications and driving.

I have to take a prescription to treat a chronic illness, but it makes me drowsy. Do you think I can stop taking it for just a weekend so I can drive to see my grandchildren?
Do not stop taking your medication without first consulting with your doctor or pharmacist. They can provide more information and help you make the best decision for your health and safety.

My neighbor told me that even daytime cold medication can make me drowsy, so I shouldn't take it if I have to drive. Is that true?
Your neighbor is correct. For some people, even “non-drowsy” cold medications can have side effects such as dizziness, drowsiness, headache, nausea or nervousness. These conditions can make driving a risky endeavor. If you must take the medication, best to find someone to drive you to your destination.



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