AAA: Motorists Unaware of the Dangers of Certain Medications

AAA Foundation study finds doctors’ warnings often ineffective or ignored

According to new research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, nearly half of the motorists surveyed said they used one or more potentially impairing medications in the past 30 days. The proportion of those choosing to drive is higher among those taking multiple medications. Also, many who took medications to combat depression, pain, or sleep issues were not warned by their healthcare provider regarding the possible dangerous impact on driving.

“Our research finds an alarming number of motorists are getting behind the wheel after they’ve taken one or more medications that could significantly impair their ability to drive safely,” said Theresa Podguski, director of legislative affairs, AAA East Central. “Medical professionals can help by giving their patients all the facts about the possible risks of these medications and ensuring they understand.” 

Motorists who take one or more of these medications may be unaware of the possible impacts on their driving ability. Many potentially driver impairing (PDI) medications have possible effects that can be dangerous when mixed with driving including dizziness, sleepiness, fainting, blurred vision, slowed movement, and attention problems.

AAA recommends that the advice given by medical and pharmacy professionals about the dangers of mixing over-the-counter and prescribed medications with driving must be vastly improved and more consistently emphasized to maximize safety.

This study focused on the prevalence of recent use by motorists of commonly used prescriptions and over-the-counter medications such as antihistamines, cough medicines, antidepressants, prescription pain medicines, muscle relaxants, sleep aids, and amphetamines. As the term implies, PDI medications can potentially impair driving, but effects on individual drivers may vary.

Antihistamines and cough medicines—many available without a prescription—were most commonly used. However, the proportion of motorists that reported driving after use was highest for those who reported amphetamine use, such as Adderall and Dexedrine, as shown in the table below.

The percentage of motorists who reported driving after using various potentially driver impairing medications within the past 30 days, United States, July–August 2021

 Antihistamines and/or cough medicinesAntidepressantsRx pain medicationsMuscle relaxantsSleep aids, barbiturates, or benzodiazepinesAmphetamines1 or more of these medications*2 or more of these medications*3 or more of these medications*
All drivers38.9%60.8%32.6%21.6%9.2%73.1%45.0%63.3%70.8%

Base: U.S. residents ages 16+ with a driver’s license who reported driving and taking the corresponding medicine (or number of medicines) in the past 30 days, weighted to reflect the U.S. population. *Not necessarily at the same time.

Research found that up to half of motorists who were prescribed and took each type of PDI medication did not report receiving a warning from their medical provider or pharmacist regarding its possible impacts on driving. But those who did receive a warning were 18% less likely to get behind the wheel after use, highlighting the potential benefit of healthcare providers’ counseling to reduce medication-impaired driving. 

Anyone taking PDI medications should discuss with their doctor or pharmacist ways to continue driving safely, such as adjusting medication doses, the timing of those doses, or alternative medications to treat medical conditions without causing driver impairment.

For motorists, AAA recommends these safety tips to keep in mind:

  • Don’t Underestimate the Risks of Driving after Using Medications—Over the past three decades, society has realized the dangers associated with drunk driving. According to the latest AAA Foundation Traffic Safety Culture Index, most motorists (94.5%) consider driving after drinking alcohol very or extremely dangerous. But, only 87% feel the same about driving after using potentially impairing medications.
  • Be Aware of Options—With advice from a doctor or pharmacist, motorists can successfully treat a medical condition and maintain the ability to drive safely. Options include, but are not limited to, timing doses to avoid instances when there is a need to drive, adjusting how much medication is taken, or even exploring alternative medications that treat symptoms without causing impairment.
  • Be an Advocate—Become a better advocate when visiting a doctor, when filling a prescription at the pharmacy, or purchasing over-the-counter medications. AAA recommends that consumers be proactive by asking the doctor or pharmacist how the medications could affect driving ability and how to avoid those risks while treating their medical condition. If the medicine is available over-the-counter, read the warnings, heed them, or consult a pharmacist for advice. 

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