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Drugs and Driving

Just about everyone has heard, "Don't Drink and Drive" and "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk." But not as many realize that there are many dangers associated with getting behind the wheel of a car (or bus, train, or plane) while high on marijuana.

Pot use impairs one's ability to reason and make decisions, and slows reaction time. In addition, motor skills and visual tracking ability are diminished. Another reason why driving would not be safe while high is that users usually feel a bit tired, and have difficulty concentrating. Sometimes people experience anxiety and/or visual, perception, and time distortions, none of which would help with navigating a vehicle on a road, or even in the driveway. Also, pot impairs memory formation, so if someone is given directions of where to drive while high, there's a chance that s/he won't quite remember how to get from point A to point B once the trip has begun. 1

Keep in mind that many other drugs -- whether they be legal or not, recreational or prescription - can affect cognition, judgment, reflexes, and motor skills. People may be able to see an object in front of them but be so relaxed that they do not react until it is too late. Or they might be so excited that they do not even see the object in time to avoid a crash. Being drug impaired, intentionally or not, increases the potential for injuring others and causing fatalities. The best bet is to avoid operating heavy machinery (cars, tractors, amusement park rides, etc.) until you've checked into the effects of a drug you're taking on your ability to think straight and move smoothly. 1

To the victim, the crash can be a lifelong sentence of medical bills, altered lifestyle, and an early death. To the drugged driver, the guilt of harming another remains with them for life. 2

Marijuana and Driving: Click here to download an excellent article by Jim Porter, MA, NCAC II, LAC

Prescription or Over-the-Counter Drugs and Driving

When people take cold medications or a pill to ease their headache, they often forget that the medication has effects on their cognitive and motor abilities. It doesn't usually cross their minds that they are taking a drug and will be impaired. Even if they read the warning, it's common to assume that it only applies a few certain people and that "do not operate heavy machinery" means farm equipment or tractors, forgetting that cars should be included as well. Also, many drugs carry warnings about drowsiness or dizziness that people ignore. However, this is a serious problem that leads to thousands of automobile crashes each year. The danger of getting behind the wheel when a driver is too tired to drive can be fatal. 2

Drugs impair our bodies in a variety of ways. They may blur our vision; make us tired or too excited; alter depth perception; make us see or hear things that may not be there; raise or lower blood pressure; react too quickly, too slowly, or not at all. They cause problems with concentrating on the task at hand. These problems can result from taking any type of drug: illegal, prescription or over-the-counter. When our brain function is altered, our muscle and nerve function changes. 2

  • Taking sedating antidepressants even 10 hours before driving is equal to driving drunk. 4

  • 10 mg of Valium can cause greater driving impairment than a blood alcohol concentration of 0.1 (at or above the legal limit in all states). 4

  • Antihistamines - which block allergic reactions - slow down reaction time and impair coordination. 4

  • Over-the-counter decongestants can cause drowsiness, anxiety, and dizziness. Drowsy driving is responsible for an estimated 100,000 traffic crashes and about 1,500 deaths every year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). 2

  • Common prescription drugs (including medications to treat allergies, pain, diabetes, high blood pressure, cholesterol, ulcers, depression, anxiety disorders, and insomnia) can cause drowsiness, affect vision and other skills that can be serious hazards on the road. 2

  • Tranquilizers, sedatives, and sleeping pills slow down the central nervous system causing drowsiness and diminished reaction time, and impairing the ability to concentrate. 2

  • Over-the-counter drugs such as cold and cough medicines, antihistamines, drugs to prevent nausea or motion sickness, pain relievers, decongestants, and diuretics can cause drowsiness or dizziness that can impair a driver's skills and reflexes. 2

  • Some drugs may make you feel alert and confident in your driving. In reality of the situation may be quite different. Drugs can fool you into believing your are in control of your driving when you are, in fact, impaired. 2

  • Here is a partial list of legal drugs that can - in the right amount - impair your ability to drive. 4

    • Anti-anxiety medication
    • Amphetamines
    • Barbiturates
    • Stimulants
    • Narcotic pain medications
    • Allergy medicines
    • Blood sugar medicines
    • Antidepressants
    • Tranquilizers
    • Blood pressure medicines
    • Motion sickness medication
    • Ulcer medication
    • Antibiotics
    • Anti-seizure medicines
    • Paregoric
    • Anti-nausea medicine
    • Sedatives
    • Cough syrups
    • Alcohol-containing medicines
    • Caffeine-containing medicines
    • Decongestants

To avoid harming yourself or others, partner with your physician and pharmacist to learn information regarding your medication's side effects, and what drugs are usually safe to combine-especially behind the wheel. Never take more than the prescribed dose, or take anyone else's medicine. Ask for non-sedating forms of your prescriptions if you are behind the wheel, or operate heavy machinery. Allow your body time to adjust to new medications before you drive. Most importantly, each of us is responsible for knowing the signs and symptoms of being drug impaired before we get behind any wheel. 2

Other Drugs and Driving

GHB and Driving

  • GHB is a sedative-hypnotic which can diminish concentration and physical coordination. Driving while intoxicated on GHB can cause a driver to pass in and out of consciousness or fall asleep at the wheel. A person may think the drug has worn off and it's safe to drive, but GHB has residual effects that can impair driving ability.

  • Because GHB can cause amnesia, an impaired driver may have little or no recall of events that happened before an accident.

Ecstasy and Driving

  • Ecstasy can cause blurred vision and distorts visual perceptions, which makes it difficult to judge distances. Ecstasy is a stimulant drug and gives a driver a false sense of confidence, energy, and power. It may impair judgment and increase risk-taking behavior, such as more aggressive driving, and decrease the ability to coordinate the appropriate reaction when driving.

  • After consuming ecstasy at a rave party, a driver can be exhausted and dehydrated, leading to sleepiness and inattention to objects on the road - a set up for a crash.

  • Driving before or after the ecstasy has taken effect is also dangerous. A user cannot predict when the ecstasy will take effect or if residual effects will impair the ability to drive.

Allergy Medications and Driving

  • University of Iowa researchers who tested allergy sufferers in a driving stimulator found that the antihistamine diphenhydramine (found in many allergy and cold medications) significantly impaired a driver's ability to follow, steer, and maintain the correct lane. The study showed that diphenhydramine has more significant impact on driving performance that alcohol does.

  • Researchers said that of the 39 million Americans who suffer from hay fever and allergies only 4.8 million take prescription medications. The remainder either go without treatment or take over-the-counter medications. These medications may be effective, but they often come with warnings stating drowsiness may occur and to use caution when driving a motor vehicle or operating machinery.

Consequences to Driving Drug Impaired

The consequences associated to driving under the influence of drugs are much the same as those associated with driving alcohol impaired. It will cost large amounts of money (from about $8,000 - $10,000) as well as time, embarrassment, possible injury, and even death. Besides that, it affects not just the person making the decision to drive impaired, but people in the car, other drivers, and the entire society. In a nutshell, the risks aren't worth it.

References

1. Go Ask Alice. Marijuana and Driving. Retrieved on February 2, 2003 from the World Wide Web: http://www.goaskalice.columbia.edu/1651.html

2. Citizens Against Drug Impaired Drivers. Retrieved on February 4, 2004 from the World Wide Web: http://www.candid.org

3. The Vaults of Erowid. Marijuana, Alcohol and Actual Driving Performance. Retrieved on February 3, 2004 from the World Wide Web: http://www.erowid.org/plants/cannabis/cannabis_driving5.shtml#general_conclusions

4. Health Plus. Alcohol and Drug Abuse. Retrieved on February 3, 2004 from the World Wide Web: http://vanderbiltowc.wellsource.com/dh/Content.asp?ID=483