July 26, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 5Comment

In the New York Times, Abby Goodnough and Katie Zezima highlight the problem of “drugged driving,” or driving while under the influence of a drug that impairs driving ability:

The behavioral effects of prescription medication vary widely, depending not just on the drug but on the person taking it. Some, like anti-anxiety drugs, can dull alertness and slow reaction time; others, like stimulants, can encourage risk-taking and hurt the ability to judge distances. Mixing prescriptions, or taking them with alcohol or illicit drugs, can exacerbate impairment and sharply increase the risk of crashing, researchers say.

It’s hard to get good numbers on drug-impaired driving arrests, since states often lump them together with drunk driving arrests for reporting purposes. Law enforcement officers see it as a problem that’s growing quickly, though.

While the article focuses on the difficulty of defining drug-impaired driving and prosecuting those who’ve driven while impaired by medication, I couldn’t help but wonder about the role of transportation issues. It’s hard to tell someone that if he’s taking a prescription drug he can’t drive, because driving is essential for much of our population. But what if it weren’t? If reliable, affordable, convenient public transportation were available to more of our population, it would be easier for a driver to hang up the car keys while medicated.

5 thoughts on “Another Way to Reduce “Drugged Driving”

  1. I’ll confess that I’ve driven under the influence of a few painkillers, but almost always because I didn’t have anyone else to help me and something HAD to get done – I had to get food or I was going to be sicker than I was, or I had to get home and everyone around me was far more impaired because they were too tired. I did it after I knew how the drugs affected me, and I knew that they messed with my reaction time, though within limits that I was comfortable with, and I timed my driving to avoid rush-hour and the like.

    Still, it would be great for there to be convenient and cheap/free transportation so that I could have avoided driving.

  2. The availability and practicality of alternatives to driving play a huge part in this issue. In much of this nation public transport is impractical. The design or roads means you bike or walk only if you have a death wish. A single trip by taxi cost a days pay.

    Given the proportion of people who are using alcohol and illegal drugs to treat chronic pain and other medical problems, often because they can’t afford to get proper treatment, a good part of drunk/impaired driving comes from a combination of a lack of affordable healthcare and a lack of alternatives to driving.

  3. I’d argue that it’s entirely reasonable for someone prescribed a medication that impairs driving safely to avoid doing so. Look at it like a temporary disability. I’ve got a permanent disability that lead to my own decision to quit driving a few years ago. It’s still perfectly legal for me to drive, in fact I keep a drivers license instead of an ID-only card because it’s so much easier and cheaper to obtain! But I won’t put the people around me at an increased mortal risk for *any* level of personal convenience by driving.

  4. Then you have the problems caused by the initial symptoms to balance against the drug effects: anxiety or pain may impair you worse than the medications that reduce it. If you’re lucky (and relatively privileged) like me, you can say that you won’t drive, on or off your meds. If you’re not living in a walkable-bussable area, and you don’t have family or friends willing and able to drive you, you’re in a tougher spot.

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