The Most Common Prescription Drugs Involved in DUI Incidents

Updated on November 29, 2021

The statistics on DUI (driving under the influence) are always sobering. Last year, the FBI estimates over one million people were arrested for driving while under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Almost 30% of vehicular fatalities are related to alcohol or drug impairment.

While it might not be the first thing many think of, prescription drugs are a definite part of the problem. While it’s difficult to get precise statistics on how many drivers got in accidents specifically as a result of prescription drugs (because there aren’t many standard road tests for police to administer), there is a heavy crossover between alcohol use and drug use when it comes to car accidents.

Prescription drugs aren’t often thought of as potentially being at least as dangerous as alcohol when one gets behind the wheel — which can, ironically, make them even more dangerous. Because they’re prescribed drugs, many people think they must be “safe,” or they’re unaware that there may be side effects or a strong influence on one’s driving. But it can be just as hazardous to drive under the influence of prescription drugs as it is with alcohol.

The Most Common Prescription Drugs Involved in DUI Incidents

So which prescription drugs are potentially the most dangerous when one is driving an automobile? Here are the most common culprits:

  • Opioid pain pills. The most common and problematic culprit of prescription drug-related incidents, opioids can seriously impair judgment, slow reflexes, and cause other issues that could impact safe driving.
  • Benzodiazepines and other anti-anxiety medications. Anti-anxiety drugs are a necessity for many people suffering from severe anxiety issues, but some of them have side effects that can make it dangerous to operate a motor vehicle. Users should be made aware of any possible side effects before they start using them.
  • Sleeping pills. Sleeping pills, even the over-the-counter variety, can be particularly hazardous for a couple of reasons: first, sleeping pills can remain in the body for a few hours after waking, making morning driving potentially dangerous. Also, some people take them as they’re leaving work or otherwise heading home, under the assumption that they’ll “kick in” by the time they get home. But the time it takes for sleeping pills to take effect can vary wildly, and it can be dangerous if they happen to start working while one is behind the wheel.
  • Some antidepressants can impact driving ability. Studies have shown that 16% of depressive patients released from the hospital have been shown to be unfit to drive, and
  • Cold and flu medication and antihistamines. Even some of the over-the-counter variants of these products can be potent enough to severely impair driving and operating machinery, and specifically say so on the packaging. However, users can sometimes have the opposite perception of how they feel about prescription drugs — they feel because it’s over-the-counter, it can’t be that strong and won’t be a problem. But those warnings on the label are there for a reason.

Is Enough Being Done?

The rising problem of driving while under the influence of prescription drugs leads to some questions: where does the responsibility lie for this problem, and is enough being done to combat drugged driving-related casualties?

Whether it’s alcohol, illicit drugs or prescription drugs, the toll taken by accidents caused by impaired drivers can be severe, devastating, and long-lasting. The fallout can not only be considerable in terms of fines, suspended licenses, medical bills, and jail time, but can affect all aspects of one’s life. Even insurance companies penalize some policyholders with a rate hike after a DUI incident — an at-fault accident can raise insurance rates by up to 45%. And each state in the US has their own specific laws on DUI violations — some even with a zero-tolerance approach that can alter one’s life permanently.

It’s already well-known that over-prescription of drugs is a serious and ongoing issue. The medical industry is already facing criticism when it comes to doctors and pharmacists prescribing pills too often or too easily, thus leading to dependency. There have even been calls for the DEA to reduce the amount of opioids available in the United States.

This has led to questions of whether doctors should be held accountable in some way, or at least do more to stress to patients the side effects and dangers of having prescription drugs in their system.

But are lawsuits and legal consequences enough of a deterrent? The problem of driving under the influence of alcohol has been a problem for as long as there have been motor vehicles at all. There are some encouraging statistics — since the advent of ridesharing services like Uber, for example, drunk driving incidents have decreased 6% — but there is more that needs to be done, and no simple solutions readily at hand.

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