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How Can Certain Medications Lead to Auto Accidents?

Written by Berkowitz

Accident caused by distracted driver.

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.

Effects of Medication on Driving Skills

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:

  • Judgment: At exactly what moment should you pull into the left-hand lane on a two-lane highway in order to pass another car? How fast should you round the next curb? Is it OK to run a stop sign if you don’t see a police car in the vicinity? Should you “cut off” another driver in retaliation for him doing the same to you five minutes ago? All of these are judgment issues, and many medications can affect judgment.
  • Motor skills: How far should you turn the steering wheel to successfully round a curve (this can vary from vehicle to vehicle)? How hard should you tap the brakes or the accelerator when the situation so demands? All of these activities require adequate motor skills.
  • Balance: Balance is particularly critical if you are riding a motorcycle. Even though in a motorcycle/auto accident it is the motorcyclist who is usually the more seriously injured party, that doesn’t mean he can’t seriously injure or even kill the occupants of the vehicle he collides with.
  • Coordination: Driving is a matter of eye-hand coordination in much the same way that ping-pong is. Your eyes need to be on the road and your hands need to be on the steering wheel. You can imagine the trouble that can arise when these two skills fail to align with each other.
  • Spatial orientation: Your rearview mirror may contain the notice “Warning: Objects may be closer than they appear.” Imagine that being the case, not only when looking in your rear view mirror, but in any direction you look. If the driver is unaware that he is suffering from this deficiency, you have a prescription for a serious accident.
  • Slowed reaction time: This is especially dangerous in adverse road conditions (such as rain or sleet) where stopping distances are already extended.
  • Drowsiness: There is no need to go into detail about the dangers of driving while sleeping. Suffice to say, it’s not a good idea.
  • Aggressive or reckless driving: Certain medications, especially stimulants, can cause temporary personality changes that can affect how someone drives.
  • Cautious driving; Overly cautious driving can be just as dangerous as aggressive driving. Traffic conditions change quickly, and they can change decisively while you are ever-so-slowly making a left turn, for example. You may also run into the kind of trouble that you can only accelerate your way out of. Ironically, cautious driving accidents are often the result of someone being aware that they are impaired.
  • Lapses in concentration: Most people can “multitask” while driving – they can, for example, consider what they need to buy at the supermarket, while at the same time monitoring moment-to-moment traffic conditions. Some medications inhibit your ability to multitask – you can’t monitor traffic conditions and consider what you need at the supermarket at the same time. So what happens while your mind is on the supermarket?

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.

Medication, Aging, and Driving

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.

Particularly Common Medications Used by Drivers

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).

Cough Medications

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 Relievers

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.

Drug Combinations

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.

Criminal Prosecutions

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.

Civil Lawsuits

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.

Calculating Compensation

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.

Timing Is Critical – Contact Berkowitz Hanna ASAP

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.