Most drivers in Texas are aware of the dangers of Driving While Intoxicated—that is, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. What many people don’t realize, however, is that you can get charged and convicted of DWI for operating a vehicle under the influence of any substance that impairs your driving ability, including prescription drugs.
Some prescription drugs can impair your ability to drive safely. In this article, we’ll cover prescription drugs and their effects in-depth to help you make safer decisions.
Note: This article does not contain an exhaustive list of every drug that could potentially impair your driving ability. The best way to stay safe on the road is not to drive if you feel your medication may be affecting your reaction time or causing you to feel drowsy. If you are unsure whether you should drive after you’ve taken drugs, stay off the road—or get somebody else to drive—until you speak to your doctor first about any possible side effects.
What Are Prescription Drugs?
Prescription drugs are substances prescribed by a doctor to mitigate, cure, treat, or prevent diseases and other medical conditions. These drugs cannot be bought over the counter. Instead, they are purchased at a pharmacy through a verified prescription. Crucially, the drugs are intended to be used by the one person the doctor has prescribed them for.
In contrast, nonprescription drugs—also called over-the-counter (OTC) drugs—can be bought off the shelf in stores and do not require a doctor’s prescription.
Most prescription and TOC drugs will not stop you from driving, but there is a sizable number that will cause side effects that impair your ability to drive, thereby increasing the risk of traffic accidents. To stay safe, it’s essential that you read the packaging before getting behind the wheel.
Prescription Drugs That Impair Your Ability to Drive Safely
Sometimes, prescription or OTC drugs that wouldn’t usually affect your ability to drive safely can do so when combined with other drugs. Knowing which types of substances may cause side effects will help you make safer decisions.
Remember, if you are ever unsure about the potential side effects that can arise as a result of taking a combination of drugs, you should speak to a healthcare professional such as your doctor.
The following list includes some drugs that may impair your ability to drive:
- Opioid pain relievers
- Some anxiety drugs (like benzodiazepines)
- Some antidepressants
- Antipsychotic drugs
- Drugs containing codeine
- Anti-seizure and antiepileptic drugs
- Some cold remedies (prescription and OTC)
- Some allergy products, such as antihistamines (prescription and OTC)
- Sleeping drugs
- Muscle relaxants
- Diarrhea control medicines
- Some anti-sickness (such as motion sickness) medication
- Diet pills and stimulants (“stay awake” medication) that include caffeine, ephedrine, and pseudoephedrine.
Sleep Medications and Your Ability to Drive
Since sleep medications are designed to make you sleepy, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise that it is not safe to get behind the wheel when you’re taking them. However, some sleep medications may also impair your driving ability the following morning.
One common ingredient in prescription sleep medication is zolpidem. Zolpidem belongs to a group of drugs called sedative-hypnotics, and—according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—prescription drugs that contain zolpidem can impair your ability to drive and perform other physical activities the following day.
Zolpidem comes in both immediate and extended-release forms under the following brand names:
- Ambien and Ambien CR
Zolpidem is not the only sleep-inducing drug that can cause driving ability impairment the next morning—even over-the-counter remedies can have lingering effects the next day.
Allergy Medicines and Ability to Drive
For allergy sufferers, allergy medication containing antihistamines can relieve symptoms such as congestion, a runny nose, and sneezing. However, antihistamines can impair your ability to drive by slowing your reaction speed, making it harder to think clearly or focus, and maybe even cause confusion. These symptoms can manifest without making you feel drowsy, though drowsiness can also be a side effect.
In addition, drinking—even legal amounts—of alcohol can boost the sedative side effects of antihistamines, creating a potentially dangerous combination for unaware drivers.
Both OTC and prescribed medicines can contain antihistamines. If you need to take them and drive, read the label and look out for warnings.
Side Effects Associated with Certain Prescription Drugs
When talking about side effects that impair driving ability, the first symptom that comes to most peoples’ minds is drowsiness, but there are others that you should be aware of, too.
While this list of side effects is not exhaustive, it’s important to remember that most prescription drugs will not interfere with your driving ability. Equally, if you have been prescribed medicine that can cause one of the following side effects, you should speak to your healthcare provider before getting behind the wheel.
- Delayed reaction times
Reactions to stimulants
- Muscle spasms
- Blurred vision
- Buzzing sounds
- Arrhythmia (risk of fainting)
- Cardiac arrest
How to Maintain Safe Driving Abilities While on Prescription Drugs
If you have been prescribed medication that could interfere with your driving ability, you should discuss this with your healthcare provider. Consider the following tips to help you stay safe on the road:
- The potential side effects: understanding how the medication could affect you will help you make the right choices. Read the informational leaflets that come with your medicine, and talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions.
- Alternatives: If you must drive, discuss with your doctor if there are any alternative drugs or therapies that could help you.
- Doses: Your doctor will know the limit for how much of your medication you can take to maintain your driving ability. Take their advice and stick to your dose.
- Scheduling: Speak with your healthcare provider to schedule your daily doses so that it doesn’t impact your day-to-day driving ability.
- Avoid alcohol: Drinking alcohol, of any amount, could boost the side effects of the medication you’re on. It’s safer to avoid drinking alcohol altogether if you’re going to drive.
- Drug combinations: Before taking new drugs, prescribed or OTC, ensure that your doctor is aware of the substances you are already taking, and ask for advice on whether the combination could affect your ability to drive.
How to Obtain Details on Prescription Medications in the United States?
Information and details about all authorized prescription and OTC drugs on the market in the United States are available to the public on the National Library of Medicine website through MedlinePlus. You can search for the name of the drug you would like to learn about and find the following details:
- Side effects
- Recommended dosage
- Special precautions; and more.
If you still have questions, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider.
Texas Laws on Medication Use and Driving
In Texas, you can be convicted of Driving While Intoxicated if you operate a vehicle while your driving ability is impaired due to the consumption of any substances, including alcohol, controlled substances such as narcotics, prescription drugs, and over-the-counter medication.
Here’s how the Texas Penal Code defines “Intoxicated”:
“…not having the normal use of mental or physical faculties by reason of the introduction of alcohol, a controlled substance, a drug, a dangerous drug, a combination of two or more of those substances, or any other substance into the body…”
A first-time DWI offense, if there are no aggravating factors, such as child passengers or serious bodily injury to another person, is a Class B misdemeanor. A conviction could result in thousands of dollars in fines, jail time, a driver’s license suspension, and a permanent criminal record.
What You Should Do If Charged with DWI Caused by Prescription Drugs?
If you have been charged with DWI after taking prescription drugs, the first thing you should do is contact an experienced DWI defense attorney immediately. Don’t be tempted to plead guilty to DWI. A conviction will remain on your record forever, possibly reducing your chances of future employment, hindering loan applications, and even stopping you from gaining professional licenses.
These are just a few examples of the collateral consequences of a DWI conviction. But, DWI charges do not automatically result in a conviction.
The Best Strategy of DWI Defenses in Texas
A skilled, resourceful DWI attorney will fight for the case against you to be dismissed. Some strategies include scrutinizing and challenging whether the police officer who arrested you did so legally. They can examine whether the officer had reasonable suspicion to stop you in the first place and if they then had probable cause to arrest you.
Every DWI case is different, but it’s always anxiety-inducing for the defendant. If you are facing DWI charges, you don’t have to do so alone.
The first step you need to take is to contact an attorney today. At Michael & Associates, we know how important it is to find a lawyer you can trust. That’s why we won’t charge you for a case review. Book your free case review today, and we can have an open and honest discussion about your best options.
Ben has vast experience in defending criminal cases ranging from DWIs to assault, drug possession, and many more. He has countless criminal charges dismissed and pled down. Among many other awards, one of the Top 10 Criminal Defense Attorneys in Texas and winner of Top 40 under 40.