PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Most people know you can get into serious trouble for drinking and driving.
You can also get into trouble for taking that pain pill or allergy medicine and driving.
“We don’t use the word drunk driving anymore because there’s so many substances,” says Cathy Tress of the Pennsylvania DUI Association.
It’s called DUI-D — or driving under the influence of drugs — even legally-obtained prescription drugs or over-the-counter medicines.
“If you’re seeing impairment, which is not matching the alcohol, or there’s no alcohol at all so there’s a definite disconnect, you should be thinking drugs,” says Moon Township policeman Sgt. Douglas Ogden.
People get into accidents because of taking cold medicine or a sedative.
“Statistically in the state, our numbers are roughly half of our DUIs we believe are also under the influence of drugs as well,” Odgen adds.
When someone is pulled over for a suspected DUI-D, a specially trained officer called a drug recognition expert, is called to do an extra standardized evaluation, including a breath test, field sobriety test, blood pressure, pulse and other signs.
“I rely on eyes a lot. Every drug is going to affect your eyes one way or another,” says Trooper Daniel Acklin, a drug recognition expert, said.
Even the emergency department has seen an increase in cases, especially when people start a new medication, or when people take more than they should because they think more medicine will give them more symptom relief.
“The more common drugs are sleeping medications and anti-anxiety medications,” says West Penn Hospital ER physician Dr. Thomas Campbell.
The numbers here are hard to pin down, because there’s no reporting mechanism like there is for alcohol, and no screening procedure for the many types of medications that can do this.
Furthermore, there is variability person-to-person.
“Some of the other over-the-counter medications, as simple as Benadryl, when they’re combined with a drink or two, can really affect people differently,” says Dr. Campbell. “Even though their size is the same, and weight, it’s just a matter of their body and their metabolism.”
The officers agree, it’s often not just one drug, but several taken at once that really cause a problem.
“It’s the one plus one equals three type thing,” Odgen explains.
Be careful what medicines you take together, and if the label says “don’t operate heavy machinery” or “may cause drowsiness,” don’t ignore that.
“When you see that warning on every single medication you could take, you tend to ignore it, because you don’t believe it,” says Dr. Campbell, “however, it’s real and it’s out there.”
When you start a new medication, Dr. Campbell recommends not driving for a few days until you see how your body reacts.
Also, to help keep you safe, get all of your prescriptions from the same pharmacy if possible. In many cases, the computer there will cross-check for any interactions, including interactions that would make it unsafe to drive.