The “influence” part of the phrase “driving under the influence” (DUI) can mean driving under the effects of prescription drugs or medications, such as sedatives, painkillers or sleeping aids. Now an emerging problem, law enforcement officials remain unsure how to treat drug-related types of DUI charges. People process drugs differently, and contrary to alcohol, there is no set limit for determining how much of a drug is too much when it comes to driving – even though the effects can be deadly.
The situation is gaining more attention, especially in light of the tragic death of a New York bicyclist in January 2010 who was hit and killed by a driver under the influence of prescribed sedatives. It is unknown exactly how many drivers may be behind the wheel with drug-induced impairments, but a screening of nearly 6,000 evening drivers conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed that many – 16.3 percent – had positive results for drugs.
In the New York case, the driver could not stay awake while talking with investigators and had slurred speech. She had been taking muscle relaxers and a sedative, both prescribed medications, but was charged with vehicular manslaughter.
In most states, a person can be arrested for a DUI charge if they have consumed anything that causes a sobriety test to be failed. Many people may not realize certain types of tranquilizing, muscle relaxer or anti-anxiety drugs can cause a driver to seem impaired and fail a field sobriety test. Patients who take prescription drugs that cause drowsiness can also be arrested for a DUI when not just driving a vehicle, but riding a bicycle or driving a boat.
Mark Neil, National Traffic Law Center senior attorney, calls the problem a challenge in terms of balancing public safety with the needs of patients who have diagnosed conditions requiring medications. Arrests can be made if a driver shows grogginess, confusion or any sign of being impaired. This can occur even with over-the-counter medications such as sleep aids taken with medications for asthma or allergies.
Complicating the problem is the reality that different people process and react differently to prescription drugs. Anti-anxiety medications can cause some to have reduced reaction rates. Stimulants may lessen inhibitions for others, or waken their ability to discern distances while driving. If the prescriptions are combined with alcohol, the likelihood of having an accident greatly increases. Some prescription medications can remain in the body for weeks, making it hard to tell if a driver is safe on the road or not.
Some experts say the problem can be approached as part of an overall initiative to keep all drivers who have consumed drugs – including marijuana – from getting behind the wheel. Arrest and conviction, however, can be difficult to achieve without the help of officers professionally trained in drug use – a law enforcement staff in short supply across the country. Jurors may also be reluctant to convict a person for driving under the influence of drugs, especially if they take prescription drugs themselves.
The President’s drug policy team is seeking to reduce accidents caused by drivers under the influence of drugs by ten percent through 2015. As numbers of drunk driving accidents continue to decline in comparison to drugged-driving accidents, this problem will remain on the forefront of drug-related research.