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Can Prescription Drugs Impair Your Ability To Drive Safely?

November 23 2018 | Blog
  • Although measures to address the ongoing opioid epidemic are underway, the problem continues to affect communities across the U.S. One of the negative effects of the prescription drug crisis is a growing number of accidents caused by drug-impaired drivers. In this article, we provide basic information on drug-impaired driving risks.


    As we reported in our special series of blogs in June, the American opioid abuse crisis is, by all accounts, still very much raging on. Despite efforts to curb the problem, the number of people who die from an opioid overdose increases every year. As estimated by the Centers for Disease Control, last year, 72,000 Americans overdosed on drugs. This overwhelmingly high number not only represents a sharp, 10% increase over the previous year but, sadly, is also the new all-time record of drug overdose deaths. The opioid abuse epidemic has impacted, to some extent, virtually every state. Kentucky is one of the states most affected by this malady with a drug overdose rate of 33.5 per 100,000 people.

    As addiction to prescription drugs continues to ensnare more people, the consequences of the epidemic and their scope become bigger, more serious, and more evident. One of the growing concerns, directly stemming from the prescription drug crisis, is the problem of drug-impaired driving. In this article, we will provide an overview of this issue as well as some suggestions for those who may have been injured in an accident where impairment was a factor.

    What Is Drug-Impaired Driving?

    Drug-impaired driving can be defined as “the operation of a motor vehicle while under the influence of or impaired by any type of drug”. While not all drugs have a negative impact on one’s driving skills or decision-making abilities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration notes that “prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, and illegal drugs may cause impairment alone or in combination with each other and/or with alcohol”. NHTSA keeps a record of over 400 drugs that can cause impairment but it appears that, in the context of drug-impaired driving, two substances come to the fore: marijuana and opioid prescription drugs.

    How Marijuana Affects Driving

    As stated in a report published in May by the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) – a non-profit organization for state and territorial highway safety – “many experimental studies document that marijuana affects psychomotor skills and cognitive functions critical to driving including vigilance, drowsiness, time and distance perception, reaction time, divided attention, lane tracking, coordination, and balance”. On the other hand, the same report admits that “marijuana effects vary substantially across individuals” and that it’s “effect on crash risk is far less clear”. Still, the report notes that in 2016, 41.1% of all fatally injured drivers tested positive for the presence of some form of marijuana in their systems. In the case of three-quarters of these drivers, the presence of THC, the psychoactive element of marijuana, was detected.

    It is important to note that, even though there is not enough scientific evidence to conclude with certainty to what extent marijuana use may influence car crash risk, driving under the influence of the drug is strictly prohibited both in Kentucky and Tennessee under a zero-tolerance policy for drug-impaired driving.

    How Opioids Affect Driving

    According to the report mentioned above, there is sufficient scientific evidence to conclude that “opioids can cause drowsiness, impair cognitive function, and increase crash risk”. In 2016, 16% of fatally injured drivers tested positive for the presence of opioids while in the case of as much as 42%, both opioids and marijuana were found.

    Even though in one survey, 90.8% of drivers stated that they perceived people driving under the influence of illicit drugs as a serious or somewhat serious threat, other data show that 20% of weekend drivers test positive for drugs at nighttime. The prevalence of drug use among a high percentage of drivers might be explained by insufficient knowledge of drugs’ effect on driving. For example, the FDA’s advice for prescribing OxyContin – one of the most popular opioid drugs abused by Americans – is that doctors warn patients “not to drive or operate dangerous machinery unless they are tolerant to the effects of OxyContin and know how they will react to the medication” which is vague enough to give long-term users a false sense of security.

    When Injured by a Drug-Impaired Driver

    As is the case with drunk driving, a drug-impaired driver who causes an accident can be charged with both criminal and civil charges. However, due to the shortcomings of testing methods, it may be challenging for the injured party to prove that the at-fault driver was under the influence of drugs and that the impairment was a major contributing factor to the crash.

    Close cooperation with a car accident lawyer is instrumental to ensure a successful outcome. In any case, the victim has the right to pursue financial compensation for the injuries suffered. The damages claimed may compensate the injured party’s losses due to medical expenses, lost income, property damage, pain and suffering, and more.

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