Prescription and over-the-counter medications have the ability to reduce a person’s ability to drive safely

21 July 2022

A national survey - conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety - reveals many Americans admit to taking one or more potentially impairing medications before getting behind the wheel. Read the Full Report 

AAA’s study focused on commonly used medications such as antihistamines, cough medicines, antidepressants, prescription pain medicines, muscle relaxants, sleep aids, and amphetamines. These are identified as potentially driver impairing (PDI) medications.

PDIs put drivers at risk by causing nausea, sleepiness, blurred vision, slowed reaction time, and attention problems. While the side effects can vary by individual, these medications have the ability to reduce a person’s ability to drive safely.

Throughout the course of a 30 day period, about half of Americans reported using a potentially driver impairing medication. During that same 30-day period:

  • Nearly half (45%) of those who reported using one or more PDI medications admitted to driving within two hours of using at least one medication.
  • *63% of people who reported taking two or more PDI medications (within 30 days) drove within two hours of a dose.
  • *71% of drivers who reported taking three or more PDI medications (within 30 days) drove within two hours of a dose.
  • The data is from a national survey of U.S. residents ages 16+ with a driver’s license who reported driving and taking the corresponding medicine (or number of medicines) within a 30 day period, weighted to reflect the U.S. population. *Not necessarily at the same time.

Share of those who drove within two hours of taking a particular PDI medication:

  • 73% of amphetamine users.
  • 61% of antidepressant users.
  • 39% of those taking antihistamines and/or cough medicines.

“Impaired driving is often associated with alcohol or illegal drug use, but over-the-counter or prescription medications can also compromise your ability to drive safely,” said Mark Jenkins, spokesman, AAA – The Auto Club Group. “Unfortunately, not everyone realizes their medications can impair their driving and make the mistake of getting behind the wheel.”

Not All Drivers Received Medical Warnings

When getting behind the wheel, it’s possible that some drivers who are prescribed PDI medications may not be aware of the possible impacts on their driving ability. According to the study, 20%-50% of drivers received no warning from a healthcare provider that the medication could affect their ability to drive. However, those who did receive a warning were 18% less likely to get behind the wheel after use.

This highlights the potential benefit of healthcare providers’ counseling to reduce medication-impaired driving. To maximize safety, AAA urges medical professionals to consistently offer clear consultation to their patients and ensure they understand the possible risks of mixing prescribed and over-the-counter medications with driving.

“AAA urges anyone taking PDI medications to research any potential side effects and talk to their doctor or pharmacist about ways to preserve safe driving capabilities,” said Jenkins. “AAA urges drivers to fully understand the side effects of your medications before driving, and consider a designated driver if it’s not safe for you to be behind the wheel.”

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

  • Don’t Underestimate the Risks of Driving after Using Medications—Driving under the influence of over-the-counter and prescription drug medications can affect your decision making, making it unsafe to operate a vehicle.
  • Be Responsible and Have a plan–Remember, just like driving after drinking, driving while under the influence of drugs can get you arrested. Instead of driving impaired, find a designated driver. 
  • Consider Your Options—With advice from your doctor or pharmacist, you can successfully treat your medical condition and maintain your ability to drive safely. Options include, but aren’t limited to, timing your doses to avoid times when you need to drive, adjusting how much medication you take, or even exploring alternative medications that treat your symptoms without causing impairment.
  • Advocate for Yourself—Become a better advocate for yourself during visits to the 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.
  • Do your Research–If the medicine is available over-the-counter, read the warnings, heed them, or consult a pharmacist for advice.

About the Survey

The data is from a national survey of U.S. residents ages 16+, conducted from July-August 2021. The data analyzed in the current study was based on the responses of 2,657 respondents who reported that they possessed a valid driver’s license and had driven in the 30 days before they completed the questionnaire. Data were weighted to reflect the U.S. population. Read the Full Report 

About AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety

Now celebrating its 75th anniversary, the Foundation for Traffic Safety was established in 1947 by AAA. The Foundation is a nonprofit, publicly funded, 501(c)(3) charitable research and educational organization. The AAA Foundation’s mission is to prevent traffic deaths and injuries by researching their causes and by educating the public about strategies to prevent crashes and reduce injuries when they do occur. This research develops educational materials for drivers, pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users.

About AAA - The Auto Club Group

The Auto Club Group (ACG) is the second largest AAA club in North America with more than 13 million members across 14 U.S. states, the province of Quebec and two U.S. territories. ACG and its affiliates provide members with roadside assistance, insurance products, banking and financial services, travel offerings and more. ACG belongs to the national AAA federation with more than 62 million members in the United States and Canada. AAA’s mission is to protect and advance freedom of mobility and improve traffic safety. For more information, get the AAA Mobile app, visit AAA.com, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.