Are you driving under the influence of drugs?

For most of us, the answer would be a resounding no. Of course not!

Yet, there is an increasing problem with drugs such as cannabis and cocaine, as well as the hotchpotch of drugs known as legal highs. Surveys suggest that 1 in 12 have taken an illicit drug – more common in younger adults. But how many people drive whilst under the influence of illicit drugs is hard to tell as testing isn’t commonplace. It’s reached epidemic proportions in the USA though, where, in 2015 drug-related car accidents surpassed the number of drunk driving incidents.

A roadside survey of drug-driving performed in Glasgow detected drug use in up to 4% of those tested.

And studies of road casualties in Great Britain in 2015 estimated 63 fatalities (4% of all road accident fatalities) and almost 900 casualties (1%) contributed to by drug impairment, though this is likely to be considerably underestimated.

In depth analysis of fatal accident victims showed a six times increase in detection of illicit drug use from 1989 to 2000 – highly likely to have increased further since then.

But, unless you are part of that damaging and illicit drug culture or playing Russian roulette with legal highs of dubious origin then you must be fine, right? Wrong!

More and more of us are managing chronic disease, poor sleep and other health or lifestyle problems with medication. And plenty of those meds have unwelcome side-effects that may affect your ability to drive. Whether it’s drowsiness, increased reaction time, loss

of mental concentration, shakiness or poor coordination, these all make it unsafe to drive or even cycle. Like driving over the alcohol limit, in fact.

It’s not just prescription medication either – over the counter remedies can be just as bad.

What drugs are the common culprits?

The prescribed or over the counter medications to watch out for are:

  • some antidepressants
  • prescription drugs for anxiety
  • products containing codeine
  • some cold remedies and allergy products (anti-histamines)
  • tranquilizers
  • sleeping pills
  • some painkillers

What’s the risk of drug-driving?

In the UK the penalties for drug driving are the same as drink driving:

  • A minimum 12-month driving ban.
  • A criminal record.
  • A fine of up to £5000.

The word ‘drug’ is defined in the Traffic Act as including ‘any intoxicant other than alcohol’ and does not distinguish between illegal drug use and prescribed medicinal drug use.

But more important than the inconvenience, shame and financial penalties of being caught impaired by drugs, is the risk of injury. Remember, it’s not just you that may be at risk of driving under the influence of drugs – prescription or otherwise. It’s the kids you are taxiing around or the other drivers on the road who may be involved in an accident caused by you….and the long-standing psychological consequences of injuring others may be even worse than any physical damage you do to yourself.

Driving under the influence of drugs may make you up to three times more likely to have a serious or fatal injury for cannabis alone up to 30 times higher risk for multiple drug use. And even prescription medicines can increase your risk between 2 and 10 times.

What can you do to reduce the risk?

 Of course, illicit drugs and legal highs should be binned for all number of reasons. But, that issue aside, you need to think carefully about your prescription or over-the-counter drugs……..

  •  Do you really need the drugs?

It’s tempting to think that a tablet can put things right when, sometimes, it’s a change in lifestyle that may be needed. For some people, antidepressants can be live-saving, but for others, good nutrition, exercise and other behavioural interventions may allow them to ditch the drugs and their associated side-effects. Sleeping tablets don’t help you gain good quality sleep with all of its mental health benefits – they simply drug you. You are better working on changing your lifestyle to enable a proper night’s sleep instead.

  • Read the label

Warning labels on medications about the dangers of driving are not enough to stop people getting behind the wheel with many people still driving while affected by drugs, according to Queensland University of Technology road safety researcher Dr Tanya Smyth.

But if you do need drugs, read the packet and leaflet carefully. It should be clear what drugs can cause drowsiness. However, a review of more than a hundred over the counter medicines with the potential to cause drowsiness showed a lack of consistency in the information on drowsiness and dosage – so if in doubt, check with your doctor or pharmacist.

  • Choose your drugs wisely

Some cold remedies can be sedating, others aren’t, so choose wisely. And talk to your doctor about whether any other drugs can be swapped for less sedating versions – you may well feel better as well as drive more safely.

  • Time them right

Try to time and sleep-inducing drugs well so that any drowsiness has worn off before you need to drive. For example, don’t take that sleeping tablet at 3am if you are up for work at 8, tempting though it may be. And consider begging a lift in, as drowsy-driving from sleep deprivation is as bad as drug-driving.

  • Don’t mix your poisons

Studies show that mixing drugs with each other and adding in alcohol too just adds to the risk…so avoid drinking with these tablets and avoid a cocktail of drugs.

  • Be aware of your limitations

One problem is that research has shown drivers are unable to accurately self-assess their

impairment when taking medication. Much like those who have had a few drinks, they may be assessing themselves as safe to drive, when in fact they are not.

It’s worth remembering that these side-effects don’t just happen when medicines are used excessively – they can happen at the recommended dose. And remember, effects may vary from person to person.

You may well be virtuous in avoiding alcohol when driving – I hope so for you and all other road users! But were you in ignorance of the risks of drug-driving, assuming it couldn’t possibly apply to you? Hopefully this article has explained why drug-driving may be affecting many more of us than we thought.

We know that healthy drivers are safer drivers so make sure your drugs aren’t putting you at risk!