A 2007 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that over 15 percent of nighttime drivers tested positive for legal or illegal drugs. Since that’s almost one in six drivers, look around you the next time you are driving at night. If you can observe at least seven cars in your vicinity, the odds are that at least one of them is under the influence of some type of drug.
Although it is likely that most impaired drivers are under the influence of drugs that everyone knows are illegal to drive on (such as marijuana or alcohol), prescription drugs and over-the-counter medications present a special danger. This is because the driver might not even realize that he is impaired.
Different medications produce different effects. Some of these do not negatively affect driving ability, and some of them may even enhance driving skills. Many side effects are harmful or even deadly, however. The following are some of the possible negative effects:
Perhaps the most dangerous side effect of driving on medication is purely psychological – a false sense of security. After all, heroin is a “drug,” while Dilaudid is a “medication,” right? Yet these two substances are chemically quite similar and they produce similar effects. A driver who artificially classifies substances into “drugs” vs. “medications” based on their legal status alone is asking for big trouble, both medically and legally.
One universal problem with the system of driver licensing in Connecticut, as well as elsewhere in the US, is the fact that, in most cases, you only need to take a road test once in your lifetime. After that, you can keep your license as long as you renew it every few years and don’t commit an offense that can lead to the revocation of your license – despite the possibility that your driving skills may have declined drastically over time.
This presents a problem with people suffering from the normal effects of aging or certain kinds of health problems. The normal effects of aging can drastically affect driving safety (experiencing a dizzy spell on a freeway at 65 mph, for example). Furthermore, as people age, they are more likely to use medication to counter various health problems that arise. Imagine suffering from a hearing loss while under the influence of a medication that blurs your vision.
There are hundreds if not thousands of medications that can affect driving skills. The following is a list of some of the most common:
Antihistamines are typically taken to combat the effects of allergies, especially during certain times of the year. April and May are particularly difficult months in Connecticut for those allergic to pollen. Antihistamines can cause drowsiness and slowed reaction times, both of which can be deadly.
Astoundingly, about one in six Americans have taken an antidepressant regularly during any given year. Medications such as Paxil, Zoloft, and Prozac are generally safe to drive on. But some drivers experience adverse reactions such as slowed reaction time, lapses in concentration, blurred vision, dizziness, and insomnia (leading to drowsy driving the next day).
A coughing fit can distract you enough to cause an accident. Unfortunately, cough medications can also produce effects that can impair driving skills. Many cough medications contain codeine, ephedrine, or certain compounds of these substances that are chemically related compounds. Negative effects can include dizziness, drowsiness, sluggishness, slow reaction times, and lapses in concentration.
Pain can definitely make it difficult to concentrate while driving. But certain pain medications, especially opioids, can cause drowsiness, light-headedness, and confusion. Among these symptoms, confusion may be the most unappreciated danger.
Valium, Xanax, and Ambien are examples of commonly used sedatives. While they are useful to calm the nerves and cure insomnia, they can also cause drowsiness, memory loss, slowed reaction time, and muscle dysfunction. The dangers of most of these symptoms are obvious. The danger of memory loss might be a bit less obvious. But then again, imagine trying to make a U-turn after forgetting that you are driving on a one-way street.
Medical knowledge of the effects of combining two or more medications is woefully insufficient, in part because there are so many possible combinations that it is nearly impossible to study them all. What would be the effect of someone taking a tranquilizer and a stimulant at the same time, for example? Would they neutralize each other or compound each other’s effects? In most cases, nobody is sure, but the likelihood of significant impairment is high.
Two types of liability are relevant when a car accident is caused by medication: criminal liability and civil liability. A criminal prosecution and a civil lawsuit are two completely separate proceedings with different goals, different standards, and different consequences.
It can be difficult to win a criminal conviction against a drugged driver who causes an accident due to the influence of prescription or over-the-counter drugs, especially in Connecticut. The reason for this is the ambiguity surrounding the issue of the standard of intoxication. If the intoxicant was alcohol, all the prosecution needs to prove is that the defendant was driving with a BAC of at least 0,08 percent.
But what is the legal standard for driving under the influence of Xanax, for example? In fact, no precise standard exists for every prescription or over-the-counter drug that a person might be under the influence of. Instead, the prosecutor must prove an illegal level of intoxication, beyond a reasonable doubt, on a case-by-case basis, according to the totality of the circumstances. This can make a successful prosecution expensive, time-consuming, and uncertain.
Lawsuits based on driving under the influence of medication are a different story. Although the problem with the precise legal standard for illegal intoxication remains, it is much easier to prove civil liability than it is to prove criminal guilt. To prove liability for financial compensation, all you need is a “preponderance of the evidence,” which is a much lower standard of proof than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” You can win a lawsuit even if the defendant is acquitted in criminal court.
If you are injured by a drugged driver, the compensation you are entitled to can be roughly divided into three types: property damage, financial losses, and psychological trauma. Financial losses include not only medical bills, but also lost work time and child care expenses. Psychological trauma generally means pain and suffering damages, which compensate you for your physical suffering. And this alone can amount to well over 50 percent of your total compensation.
Wrongful death damages are also available if someone is killed in the accident.
If you have been injured in an auto accident caused by someone who you believe may have been impaired by medication – whether prescription, over-the-counter, or recreational – call Berkowitz Hanna immediately or contact us online 24/7 for a free consultation. We fight hard for our clients, and our stellar track record of success speaks for itself. We serve clients from throughout Connecticut from our offices in Stamford, Bridgeport, Danbury, and Shelton.