America’s Love Affair with the Car – and Medicines – Can Be Deadly  

First, some recent, eye-opening facts:

  • In the US there are over 276 million registered vehicles with 222 million drivers holding a valid license. Of this number, nearly 43 million are 65 or older. That’s roughly one in every five.
  • 40,100 people died in accidents involving motor vehicles in 2017 a 1 percent drop from the year before.
  • Almost a third of traffic fatalities involve drivers who were impaired by drugs or alcohol, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
  • According to NHTSA there were 795 fatalities that were drowsy-driving-related in 2017.


Adding Medicines into the Mix

Often people use more than one medicine at a time. The combination of different medicines can cause problems for some people. This is especially true for older adults because they use more medicines than any other age group. Due to changes in the body as people age, older adults are more prone to medicine related problems. The more medicines you use, the greater your risk that your medicines will affect your ability to drive safely.

If someone has a couple of glasses of wine with dinner, he or she will probably feel impaired and know not to get behind the wheel. But many people could be unwittingly taking medications that may slow their coordination and responsiveness or increase fatigue—making it dangerous to drive. The following broad categories of medications can impair the ability to drive:

  • Anxiety and depression medications
  • Products containing codeine
  • Some cold remedies and allergy products, particularly those that help you sleep; decongestants and cough suppressants
  • Tranquilizers
  • Sleeping aids
  • Narcotic pain relievers
  • Diet aids
  • Stimulants

In particular, consumers need to be knowledgeable about the adverse effects of two frequently used medicines – sleeping aids and antihistamines.

It is well known that sleeping aids can cause problems when driving. Pharmacists recommend that patients using sleeping aids know to take most of these medications when they will be able to sleep for a full 7 to 8 hours. If it is a new prescription, it is recommended that it be taken on an evening when no driving is planned the next morning. FDA has even recommended that people don’t drive the day after taking sleep aids such as Ambien (zolpidem) and Lunesta (eszopiclone).

Consumers taking antihistamines should avoid using alcohol, sleeping aids, and tranquilizers if they plan to drive.


Tips about taking medications that may affect driving

Most people can drive safely if they are using medications. It depends on the effect those medicines – both prescription and over-the-counter – have on your driving. In some cases you may not be aware of the effects. But, in many instances, your doctor can help to minimize the negative impact of your medicines on your driving in several ways. Your doctor may be able to:

  • Adjust the dose;
  • Adjust the timing of doses or when you use the medicine;
  • Add an exercise or nutrition program to lessen the need for medicine; and
  • Change the medicine to one that causes less drowsiness.
  • Patients who have conditions such as high blood pressure, anxiety, Parkinson disease, or liver problems — particularly if taking more than one medication – should be aware of potential interactions that could inhibit their driving.
  • Take only the prescribed dosage of any medication that may cause drowsiness or impair driving. If the medication isn’t effective, check with the physician instead of adjusting it on their own.
  • Monitor reactions to new medications. Does it make you tired, affect your vision, or make you dizzy, faint, or inattentive? If so, how long does it take to “kick in”?
  • If a medication(s) are affecting you, talk to your physician, who can adjust the dosage, change the time when it is taken, or try another medication that doesn’t cause problematic symptoms.
  • Never combine medication, alcohol, and driving.


What You Can Do

To help avoid problems, it is important that at least once a year you talk to your doctor, nurse, or pharmacist about all the medicines – both prescription and over-the-counter – you are using. Also let your doctor know what herbal supplements, if any, you are using. Do this even if your medicines and supplements are not currently causing you a problem.


Check out how medications may affect safe driving

Eight out of ten older adult drivers age 65 and older take medications on a regular basis. And despite high prescription and over-the-counter medication use, almost half of older adult drivers using medications have never talked with their health care providers about how the drugs might affect their safe driving abilities. Roadwise Rx is a free online tool from the AAA designed to help drivers and their families understand common side effects of prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications and herbal supplements.  It also flags interactions between these medications that can impact safety behind the wheel. Print the free list and report, then discuss the confidential results with your doctor or pharmacist to learn how to mitigate possible crash risks.


(With permission from the American Pharmacists Association, this blog was adapted from Awake at the wheel: Certain scrips mean no trips, Pharmacy Today, July 1, 2014).

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Welcome to the NeedyMeds Voice! We look forward to presenting you with timely, provocative pieces on healthcare reform, patient advocacy, medication and healthcare access, and other health-related news. Our goals are to educate, enlighten, and elucidate; together, we will try to make sense of the myriad and ongoing healthcare-related changes in the U.S. today.