With more medications and drugs being developed, and ever-easier access to them, more people are driving while impaired due to substance use. Unfortunately, New Zealand is no exception.

Between 2005 and 2009, one-in-three drivers killed on New Zealand roads had potentially impairing medications or drugs in their body.

‘Impaired driving’ is usually a temporary state where your body or emotions are affected in a way that makes you unsafe to drive. While we’re all well aware of the impact alcohol can have on our driving ability, what’s perhaps less well known is the potential prescribed medicines have to impair our driving.

In a nutshell ‒ it can be unsafe to drive when taking medication that affects your driving ability. It’s also against the law to drive when you’re impaired.

The numbers are concerning. New Zealand health professionals issue nine million new prescriptions for substances that could impair driving ‒ every year. Common examples include strong painkillers, heart medications, and anxiety and depression treatments. Some substances that may impair driving by making people drowsy, such as Panadeine, are even more accessible. Often used as painkillers for people aged between 55 and 65 years (an age group who may be taking multiple medications to stay well), no prescription is needed and it is easily purchased.

The good news is that most New Zealand drivers think the topic deserves attention. Of 3,000 drivers surveyed, 96% thought that ‘medication and driving is important to know about’.

The NZ Transport Agency is leading the Substance Impaired Driving project ‒ a collaborative effort between a number of agencies that aims to raise awareness of substance-impaired driving and find effective interventions to curb the trend. This project provides a real opportunity to improve public health through education.

The AA supports the educational approach the government is taking, says AA General Manager Motoring Affairs Mike Noon. “As people become more aware of the problem, they’ll make better decisions about whether they’re safe to drive or not.

“If the label on your medication says it might affect your driving, you need to take that seriously until you know what effect the drug has on you. Also be aware that combining some medications, and particularly if you drink alcohol, can make side-effects much worse.

“Driving takes full concentration and quick reaction times and the consequences of having an accident aren’t worth the risk. You might need to get someone else to drive, or take another form of transport for a while. For most people it’s a short-term adjustment.”

Two simple things you can do when prescribed medication is to check with your health professional whether the medication could affect your driving and check for symptoms each time you drive. A car crash can happen very unexpectedly. If you’re not fully alert you could be a danger to yourself, other drivers or your passengers.

Reaction times are really slowed when you’re impaired. It's important you talk honestly with your doctor, pharmacist or nurse about your medication (and anything else you're taking) so they can help you stay safe on the road.

Some of these prescription medicines may impair your driving ability:

• Strong painkillers

• Depression medication

• Heart medication

• Allergy medication

• Sleeping tablets

• Anti-psychotic medication

• Addiction treatment

• Nausea medication

• Anxiety medication

Check for these symptoms before you drive:

• Feeling drowsy/sleepy

• Blurred vision

• Headache

• Feeling weak

• Slowed reactions

• Dizziness

• Nausea/feeling sick

• Unable to focus or pay attention

• Being easily confused

• Slurred speech

• Having trouble forming a sentence

• Feeling wired and overconfident

Reported by Margaret Stevenson-Wright for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue

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