Most drivers are well aware of the dangers of driving under the influence of alcohol, cannabis and cocaine and the penalties for doing so. However, how many of us can say that we actively consider how prescription and over-the-counter medicines can also affect our driving?
Under UK law it is an offence to drive or attempt to drive while unfit because of drug use – and driving laws do not distinguish between illegal and prescribed drugs. Drivers found to have excess prescription or over-the-counter drugs in their system can be treated in exactly the same way as drinkers and illicit drug users with a fine and a period of disqualification from driving.
A survey commissioned by road safety charity IAM RoadSmart has diagnosed Britain’s hidden drug-drive problem after it found that almost one third of motorists do not know the maximum dosages of their prescription medication they can take before it impacts their capability to drive.
They also discovered that more than 1-in-5 of respondents rarely or never check whether their prescription medication will impact their ability to drive and one quarter are unlikely to avoid driving after taking over-the-counter medications that warn against using heavy machinery, such as antihistamines or cold and flu remedies.
However, those who have driven while over the specified legal limit due to prescription medicines may have a medical defence, as long as they have followed the advice of healthcare professionals or are not causing the motorist to be unfit to drive.
What can be done to prevent this?
Although it’s ultimately the driver’s legal responsibility to inform the DVLA of their fitness to drive, it is also the responsibility of GPs and pharmacists to offer suitable clinical advice to patients regarding the likely risks of prescribed medications.
But IAM RoadSmart is calling for a review of the prescription process, as the charity claims this lack of awareness may have led to an increase of drug-drivers on UK roads. Since the law changed in 2015, cases of driving with a specified controlled drug above a certain limit have increased year-on-year, with convictions reaching 27,962 in 2021.*
Potential reforms could include following the example of Australia, where medication packaging is legally required to display a visible warning if a driver could be impaired by the substance or the French, who have deployed a colour-coded system on medications labels to help make potential risks clearer.
Antony Kildare, CEO at IAM RoadSmart, commented: “When people think of driving while under the influence of drugs, they will probably, quite understandably, think of those who get behind the wheel after taking illicit and recreational substances such as cocaine, cannabis or ecstasy.
“And yet legal drugs that are used for medicinal purposes can often be just as potent, and could profoundly impact a driver’s judgement while behind the wheel. However, under the current system, this threat may not be understood – resulting in a lack of awareness of what should be basic considerations, such as maximum dosages or whether the medication will impact their ability to drive.
“We would like to see a new and reformed system which will provide more transparency on how medications can affect a motorist’s ability to drive, and clearly communicate potential risks to motorists.
“We also want drivers to be more aware of how they feel after taking medication for their own safety, so we are urging drivers to be vigilant of any potential symptoms of taking their medication and consider how the side-effects could impair their driving. This may include drowsiness, light-headedness, shakes and dizziness.”
*Ministry of Justice: Criminal Justice System statistics quarterly: September 2022