Popular Sleep Drugs May Impair Driving

We have been warned recently about the dangers of drinking and driving and the dangers of texting and driving, but what about prescription drug usage and driving?  Many pill bottles will tell you not to operate heavy machinery while taking a certain drug.  What they don’t let you know is that driving a motor vehicle is considered just as, if not more, dangerous.

In one recent study, findings show that patients who are prescribed drugs for treating anxiety, depression and insomnia may increase their risk of being involved in motor vehicle accidents.

Based on the findings of the new study, the researchers suggested doctors should consider advising patients not to drive while taking these drugs.

Psychotropic drugs, such as diazepam, affect the way the brain functions and can impair a driver’s ability to control their vehicle. Research on the links between psychotropic medication and driving accidents has focused on benzodiazepines, which have been used to treat anxiety and insomnia.

To understand the effects of a wider spectrum of psychotropic drugs on driving accidents, the authors compared drug use in two groups of people identified using medical records from the Taiwanese national health insurance programme.

The first group included 5,183 people involved in motor vehicle accidents. The second group included 31,093 people, matched for age, gender and the year of vehicle accidents, who had no record of being involved in motor vehicle accidents.

The results suggest that the increased risk associated with benzodiazepines is mirrored in both Category Z drugs and antidepressants. However, antipsychotics were not associated with an increased risk of motor vehicle accidents, even among those taking higher doses.

“Our findings underscore that people taking these psychotropic drugs should pay increased attention to their driving performance in order to prevent motor vehicle accidents,” Hui-Ju Tsai, lead researcher of the study from the National Health Research Institutes in Zhunan, Taiwan, said.

“Doctors and pharmacists should choose safer treatments, provide their patients with accurate information and consider advising them not to drive while taking certain psychotropic medications,” Tsai said.

The research strengthens the findings of previous reports that have assessed the risk associated with individual psychotropic drugs. It also provides more evidence on the link between dose and driving performance, showing that higher doses are associated with a higher risk of an accident.

This study has been published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology.

In 1999-2005, another study, as reported by Health News, found that zolpidem, also known Ambien, a popular sleep drug, was the major intoxicant (2.3%) in 187 of 8,121 DUI arrests in Wisconsin.  The  arrests occurred at all times of the day and night, with nearly a quarter of them occurring between 8:00 a.m. and noon.

“A good safe medication that can quickly get you to sleep is on the market, but if you take it at the wrong time, that’s the problem,” says Dr. Mark Eric Dyken, director of a sleep disorder center at the University of Iowa. “If you take it when you’re supposed to be awake…it’s gonna be dangerous.”

This danger persists if people drive too soon after taking the drug. Package inserts on sleeping medication recommend at least seven to eight hours of sleep before engaging in activities such as driving. Because the half-life of zolpidem, for example, is 2.5 hours, meaning 50% of the drug is eliminated from the body every 2.5 hours, it should take about seven to eight hours for most of the drug’s effects to leave the system. At this rate, about 97% of the drug is out of a person’s system 12.5 hours after they take it.

The pill’s developer, Sanofi-Aventis, says it stands behind the safety and efficacy of Ambien when used as directed, and there is a clear warning on the drug label that patients should receive seven or eight hours asleep before being active.

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