DUI Isn’t Just for Drinking: Driving Under the Influence of Legal Drugs

by on Nov. 19, 2018

Accident & Injury 

Summary: The aim of driving under the influence (DUI) laws is to keep the streets safe. These laws make it illegal to drive if you’re sufficiently under the influence of a substance that you can’t safely do so.

Though laws vary from state to state, generally it doesn’t matter what substance, alcohol or drugs, is making your driving unsafe.


Those prescription medications you’re taking or the over-the-counter pills you use could impair you enough to become a hazard behind the wheel. That’s especially true if you’re taking a combination of drugs or drinking alcohol while under the influence of these drugs.


Hazards of prescription drug use and driving


Use of some prescription drugs can result in impaired driving, including these:


  • Opiates such as morphine and codeine.
  • Antihistamines which can make you drowsy and distracted behind the wheel. Most allergy medications, such as Benadryl and Claritin, use antihistamines, as do many over-the-counter (OTC) cold remedies.
  • Anti-anxiety drugs, including benzodiazepines (Xanax and Valium) have a calming effect, but they can cause sleepiness, dizziness, impaired thinking and vision, and confusion.


The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration states that legal drugs may cause a driver to suffer the following side effects:


  • Sleepiness
  • Blurred vision
  • Dizziness
  • Slowed movement
  • Fainting
  • Inability to focus or pay attention
  • Nausea.


Psychoactive prescription drugs, such as opioids and sedative-hypnotics have effects similar to alcohol, according to the Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse. These drugs have relaxing, anxiety-reducing or hypnotic effects. They are commonly used to treat anxiety and insomnia.


Use of psychoactive prescription drugs results in changes in the brain that disrupt normal thought and psychomotor skills. Stimulants can over-stimulate the brain and create a situation where driving decisions are made impulsively and greater risks are taken. As the effects of the stimulants fade, fatigue and sleepiness cause inattention and carelessness behind the wheel.


Over-the-counter drugs may not be safe to use if you’re driving


Just because you may be able to freely purchase an OTC drug doesn’t mean you can use it and then safely drive, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). You may feel the effects some OTC medicines can have on your driving a short time after you take them, or the effects can last for several hours. A medication could cause a significant ‘hangover-like’ effect and impact your driving as late as the following day. A lack of sleep along with using medicine that can cause drowsiness can add to the sleepiness and fatigue you may already feel.


Potentially dangerous OTC drugs include antihistamines and others:


  • Antidiarrheals, which treat or control symptoms of diarrhea. They may cause drowsiness.
  • Anti-emetics, which treat nausea, vomiting and dizziness associated with motion sickness. They may also cause drowsiness.


Age and drug-impaired driving


A population that is especially at risk of impairment due to the use of legal drugs is older drivers, who are more likely to use medications and more of them. The American Automobile Association states that two-thirds of drivers 65 years old and older take five or more medications that can affect their ability to drive safely.


If someone is suffering a mental decline later in life, it can lead to taking a prescription drug more or less often than they should or in the wrong dosage, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Older adults also might not break down the medication in their system as quickly as younger people, impacting their driving ability.


The youngest drivers are also at higher risk of a vehicle accident due to legal drug use. Teens are less experienced drivers, are more likely to underestimate or not recognize the threat drug use poses or how dangerous particular driving situations may be. They are more likely to speed and allow less distance between vehicles, creating less room for error.


Impaired driving and the law


While there are devices that can estimate your blood alcohol content level based on a sample of your breath, it’s not so easy to test for the presence or amount of legal drugs in your system. Urine and blood tests could be used. In most states if you don’t agree to have such tests performed, your license will be suspended. If law enforcement obtains a search warrant, such tests can be compelled.


There’s much more awareness in society about the dangers of drunk driving, but that doesn’t make legal drug use and driving any safer. Anyone using prescription and OTC drugs needs to be aware of their possible impact on driving and take precautions to ensure they’re not risking an accident and arrest for driving under the influence.

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