The roadways in the U.S. are highly dangerous. For example, along with sharing the road with other passenger vehicles, you’re also driving alongside 18-wheelers that can weigh as much as 80,000 pounds or 92,0000 pounds with an oversized load permit. 

There’s a lot of traffic in many parts of the country, and we’re more distracted than ever before, largely because of technology and our smartphones. 

The last thing you want to do is add to your risk when you’re behind the wheel, but unfortunately, that’s what driving under the influence does. Most often associated with driving while under the influence is alcohol or perhaps illicit drugs, but what about mind-altering prescription or even over-the-counter drugs?

These can be incredibly risky as well, and if you drive after taking certain medications, even as instructed by a healthcare provider or doctor, you may be taking a chance with your life and the life of others. 

The following are some of the things to know about driving under the influence of medication. 

Drugged Driving

Drugged driving is an umbrella term that refers to driving while impaired from recent drug use. Just like driving after drinking alcohol, drugged driving puts the driver, their passengers, and others on the road at serious risk. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2018, 20.5 million people 16 or older drove under the influence of alcohol in the past year, and 12.6 million under the influence of drugs. 

Teens and older adults are most affected by drugged driving. Teens are less likely to understand dangerous situations, and they’re also more likely to speed. Teen drivers tend to allow less space between vehicles, and they simply don’t have a lot of experience behind the wheel, so the results, when combined with the use of drugs, can be tragic. 

Automobile crashes are one of the biggest causes of death for young people between the ages of 16 and 19. 

In older adults, the situation is different. Older people are more likely to experience some level of mental decline. That can cause them to mix up their medications or take a dose that’s higher than what they’re supposed to. As we age, our bodies also break down drugs and other substances less effectively, so someone could be accidentally intoxicated  while driving

Which Medications Affect Driving?

Some of the medications that could affect driving ability include:

Opioid pain medications
Prescription anxiety medicines like benzodiazepines
Anti-seizure drugs
Some antidepressants
Codeine-containing medicines
Sleeping pills
Antipsychotic drugs
Muscle relaxants
Medicines for treating or controlling diarrhea
Motion sickness medicines
Diet pills or medications that are stimulants

Even CBD can be potentially dangerous to take while driving because it can cause drowsiness and sedation. 

Sleep medications may impact your ability to drive even the next morning when you take them the night before. 

Zolpidem is an ingredient that’s in many prescription sleep aids, and it’s classified as a sedative-hypnotic. According to the FDA, medicines containing zolpidem, especially in an extended-release form, can affect driving ability and activities the next morning. 

Zolpidem is in Ambien, Intermezzo and Zolpimist. 

If you have allergies, you need to be mindful of how these medicines can affect you too. Medications such as antihistamines can slow reaction times and make it hard to think clearly. You might feel mildly confused when you take antihistamines, even if you don’t feel overly tired. 

Before you take any medicine, over the counter or by prescription, make sure you carefully read and understand the label and any listed warnings. 

Some medications may not be impairing on their own, but if they’re combined with something else, they are. 

Can You Get a DUI/DWI?

Most people think about driving under the influence charge as stemming from alcohol use. You can, however, be convicted of a DUI if you’re under the influence of even prescription medicine. In some states, you aren’t allowed to drive if you have a certain amount of a controlled substance in your system. Prescription medicines like benzodiazepines and opioids are controlled substances. Even if you have less than the legal limit of a certain substance in your system, if an arresting officer thinks you’re impaired, you can still get a DUI.

Most prescription medicine DUIs are from a basis of impairment instead of the amount of the drug in your system. Every state has its own definition of impairment. 

Every state has its own set of penalties for a DUI from prescription medicine, and it often depends if it’s a first offense. 

Marijuana Laws

There is increasingly a gray area surrounding marijuana laws and driving. Marijuana is becoming recreationally legal in a lot of states, and it’s also available by prescription in many places. 

There’s no legal cutoff for marijuana use that’s legal when driving, so the general rule seems to be zero tolerance. At the same time, it’s difficult because marijuana can stay in the system of a user for weeks after they actually use it. 

There are situations where people are being pulled over, and they’re drug tested and found to have THC or a metabolite of cannabis in their system, but they aren’t necessarily impaired. 

This is something that increasingly states, and jurisdictions are going to have to consider as they change marijuana laws. 

Marijuana is the drug most often found in the blood of drivers who are in crashes after alcohol. Tests measure levels of THC specifically, which is the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana. The role of marijuana in crashes isn’t well understood, though. 

Generally, it’s difficult to measure how many crashes are actually caused by drugged driving each year in the U.S. There isn’t a reliable roadside test for drug levels in the body, and as is the case with marijuana, some drugs can stay in the system for days or weeks after someone uses them. 

If you take any medicine, prescription, or over-the-counter, it’s important that you talk to your doctor fully about its risks. You should avoid using mind-altering substances before you drive, and if you’re ever unsure about the particular side effects of something, talk to a medical professional.