Are you too drugged to drive?

Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 65. More than 80 percent of drivers 65 and older regularly take medication—two-thirds take five or more daily. Yet only half have talked with a medical professional about the possible safety issues related to driving.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety  warns that the risks of drug interaction and side effects affecting driving ability is a growing problem not only for older drivers but for anyone who has to take medication and needs to drive.

According to Jake Nelson, Director of Traffic Safety Advocacy and Research for AAA, “As we get older, we’re more likely to need to take a greater number of medications, which presents an opportunity for problems to occur.”

Many seniors have no idea that medications they take regularly could pose a risk when driving.

Diovan, for example, is a commonly prescribed blood pressure medication. But using it can potentially lead to the following driving problems: trouble staying within lane markings, delayed reactions, lowered level of vigilance, difficulty recalling intended destination, loss of consciousness at the wheel, difficulty concentrating, larger blind spots, difficulty seeing at night, lack of coordination in controlling vehicle, mistaking accelerator pedal for brake, weaving between lanes, speeding, failure to obey traffic laws, and more.

Read: How states are dealing with older drivers

Certain types of medications, like antidepressants, have been shown to increase crash risk by up to 41 percent. Ingredients like diphenhydramine, commonly found in over-the-counter (OTC) cold and allergy medicines, can have the same effect on driving as being above the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

New online tool

To help seniors, and family members who care about them, learn more about drug side effects and interactions between medications that may impact safety behind the wheel, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has developed a free online tool, Roadwise RX.

Using the Roadwise RX tool, simply enter the different drugs, prescription and OTC, along with vitamins and supplements, you are taking and then take the results to your doctor to see how you can still be able to drive safely.

“Your doctor can help by discussing with you what you take and possibly adjusting the dose of the prescription, changing the timing of the dose so that when you experience symptoms, you’re not driving – such as taking it before going to sleep,” said Nelson. “He may recommend an exercise and nutrition program that may reduce the need to take certain medications, or he may change your medication regimen altogether.”

If it is necessary to continue taking certain medications and you still need to get around, it may be time to consider alternative means of transportation such as riding the bus, taking taxis, shuttle buses, trains or subway, getting a ride from a family member or friend, or walking, where it is safe to do so.

Potentially impairing medications

Roadwise RX lists the most common classes of medications that have the potential to create the greatest amount of risk given an individual and driving. These include tranquilizers, narcotic pain pills, sleep medicines, some antidepressants, cough medicines, antihistamines and decongestants. Among the classes of drugs, Nelson identified the following three as the most high-risk.

  1. Barbiturates – such as Amytal and Soneryl, benzodiazepines such as Valium
  2. Antihistamines – such as Claritin and Benadryl
  3. Analgesics and narcotic pain relievers – such as hydrocodone and codeine

It is important to note that these drugs are potentially impairing medications. Not everyone will experience the same side effects or interactions when taking them, or they may experience them sometimes but not others. “Even if you take medications regularly, how they affect you may change over time,” said Nelson. “You may experience symptoms initially and the effect later subsides.”

What you can do

Nelson offers the following recommendations for anyone concerned about medication use and driving:

  • The point is not to stop taking medications. It is to monitor yourself, what medications you take, how they make you feel and when the symptoms occur.
  • Take your list of medications with you to all the doctors you see and discuss the potential risks of each medication and driving. Carry your list on your person, so that if you’re in an accident, first responders will be in a better position to treat you.
  • Talk with your doctor before you stop taking medications or alter the regimen prescribed for you. Your doctor should decide how much and when and may be able to recommend other things for you to help mitigate the risk of taking certain medications and driving.
  • In the beginning stages of taking a certain medication or when you’re no longer able to drive, look into alternatives to driving.

Roadwise RX, the only tool of its kind that looks at medications and associated driving hazards, is free to everyone to use. “While older drivers may be at more risk, seniors are among the safest drivers on the road. Safety is dependent on ability, not age,” said Nelson.

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