Driving Under the Influence: Staggering Rates

Crushed in front end of a car after an accident.

When you hear someone was driving under the influence, most of us immediately think of alcohol. However, a recent study by AAA Foundation found that “nearly half of drivers surveyed said they used one or more potentially impairing medications in the past 30 days.” This study was based on voluntary reports by drivers on whether they had taken medication and driven.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) also periodically conducts voluntary and anonymous roadside surveys. Their recent survey indicated that about 22% of drivers had consumed illegal drugs or medications.

What Are “Potentially Impairing” Medications?

Potentially impairing medications are prescriptions or over-the-counter medications that can impair a driver, with the severity of impairment varying between individuals. These include medications for regular ailments such as allergies, colds, coughs, and pain, as well as sleep aids. They can also include prescriptions such as antidepressants, strong pain medications and muscle relaxers, and amphetamines.

What Impairments Can Drivers Have After Taking Medications?

Some drivers may experience little to no obvious impairment after taking these medications. Others experience symptoms similar to alcohol such as “dizziness, sleepiness, fainting, blurred vision, slowed movement, and attention problems.” The impact can vary based on the person as well as the medication taken.

Why Do People Drive After Taking These Medications?

A drowsy young man yawning behind the wheel of his car.

One major reason people drive after taking a medication is because they are not aware of the potentially impairing qualities the medicine may have. AAA’s study found that up to half of drivers were not given any warning regarding medication’s potential impact on their ability to drive. With adequate warning, 18% of drivers were less likely to operate an automobile while taking the medication, according to the study.

AAA’s study found that up to half of drivers were not given any warning regarding medication’s potential impact on their ability to drive.

Another reason is simply because many people don’t think driving a vehicle while medicated is as dangerous as drinking and driving. (They’re wrong, of course – some medications could conceivably impair drivers more severely than alcohol.)

Are Medications Really Too Impairing to Prevent Safe Operation of a Car?

Some may experience almost no impairment, while others may see significant impairment.

There is a possibility that the impaired symptoms themselves do not result from medication. Some of the symptoms could result from the underlying ailment, such as being drowsy when the driver has a cold, regardless of any medication. It’s possible that allergy or cough medications could lessen the impact of sneezing or coughing fits while driving, in which case the medication could be improving a person’s ability to safely drive.

The severity of impairment will depend on the medication and the individual.

Driving Under the Influence of Medication Is Dangerous

Some may doubt that their medications can really prevent them from safely operating a vehicle. The side effects may not even seem that significant. The effect (and often the result) is the same as with people who drink in drive. “I feel fine to drive,” may not be accurate, and it won’t protect you from the consequences.

In October 2018, a South Carolina driver was involved in a crash with a truck that was stopped on the shoulder of the interstate. The driver exhibited signs of slurred speech and visibly appeared impaired after taking Adderall, the only medication in her blood stream. The crash killed a person who was standing in the bed of truck at the time of the collision. The solicitor over the criminal case said “impairment doesn’t always involve alcohol or illegal drugs, it can be as simple as the consumption of medication in the wrong place or the wrong time.”

Meanwhile, Charlotte, NC police are keeping watch for those who may be driving impaired under the influence of medication. According to a story from WSOC, the department is trying to keep impaired drivers off the road, but it’s not easy. The city now has seven Drug Recognition Experts, or DREs, who are trained to spot people impaired by drugs of all kinds, illegal and legal.

The Big Picture: National Data on Driving Under the Influence of Medication

The NHTSA investigates accidents involving any fatality. In 2016, 42% of fatally injured drivers were tested and found to be drug positive. Unfortunately, the NHTSA does not track drug use in all accidents because states track and report drug use inconsistently compared to how they track drinking and driving. According to the Department of Transportation, since 2008, 3,436 people have died in accidents involving drivers under the influence of Oxycodone, alprazolam (Xanax), zolpidem (Ambien), diazepam (Valium), carisoprodol (Soma), and clonazepam (Klonopin).

Warning Signs Another Driver Is Driving While Impaired

If you notice the following actions, you may be driving near an impaired driver:

  • Vehicle randomly drifting between lanes
  • Car traveling at erratic speeds
  • Vehicle hitting rumble strip on side of road
  • Aggressive braking or acceleration

What to Do if You’re Taking Medications

Older man adjusting his glasses to read the label on a medicine bottle.

To avoid driving while potentially impaired, take the following safeguards:

    • READ THE LABEL for any medication you take, even if it is simply an over-the-counter medicine for a common ailment. Follow the instructions that come with the medication.


    • Talk to your doctor or pharmacist regarding the side effects of any medications prescribed to you, or that you plan on taking.


    • Take the medication in a setting prior to driving to observe if it has any impact on your alertness, fine motor skills, or vision.


    • If you experience any impairments, avoid taking medications when you need to drive or if you must travel, make arrangements for alternate transportation.


Be Careful Out There – Because Others May Not

No one wants to be in an accident, but we all want to feel better. It’s absolutely important to ensure that, when we take medications for what ail us, we’re paying attention to the effects those medicines may have on our ability to drive safely. Be careful on the road, and be alert. And if you are in an accident caused by a driver you believe is impaired, call my firm at 1-866-900-7078 today, or contact us online. We’ll evaluate your case for free.

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About the Author

Jeremy Maddox is a lead personal injury attorney for the Law Offices of James Scott Farrin in North Carolina. He was listed on the “Best Lawyers: Ones to Watch”a list by Best Lawyers in America in 2021, The National Trial Lawyers’ “Top 100 Trial Lawyers”b list in 2020 and 2021 and “Top 40 Under 40″B list in 2021, and the “Legal Elite”c list by Business North Carolina in 2021. Jeremy is a member of the North Carolina Bar Association, the Mecklenburg County Bar Association, and the 26th Judicial District Bar Association, as well as the North Carolina Advocates for Justice.

aFor more information regarding the standards for inclusion, please visit www.bestlawyers.com.

bFor more information regarding the standards for inclusion, please visit www.thenationaltriallawyers.org.

cFor more information regarding the standards for inclusion, please visit www.businessnc.com.