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PRESCRIPTION DRUG USE AND OLDER DRIVERS   

 

Driving under the influence is most commonly associated with younger drivers under the influence of alcohol, but if you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that unlawful DUI includes not only driving under the influence of alcohol but also driving under the influence of drugs, both legal drugs (including prescription drugs) and illegal drugs. Driving under the influence of drugs is becoming an increasingly dangerous occurrence on our roads and highways. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) drugs (legal and illegal) account for 16% of all motor vehicle crashes. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) estimates that 11% of fatal vehicle crashes involved a driver under the influence of a drug or drugs.

With our aging population, another fact must be addressed: older adults are more likely to be taking prescription drugs that may affect their ability to drive safely. This is a sensitive topic that hasn’t received much attention. The NIDA cited a study that found more than one-quarter of drugged drivers involved in fatal crashes were over the age of 50.   As the NIDA observed: coupled with mental decline and the slowdown in the ability of an older adult’s system to process drugs, the use of prescription drugs can lead to the unintended driving under the influence by older adults.

And just because the drug is prescribed does not mean the older driver can’t be arrested for a DUI. This is especially true if the driver causes an accident or worse.

The Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine conducted a study on the role of prescription drug use in traffic collisions. This study found that an astounding 61.5 percent of all drivers were using prescription drugs and the number of drivers on these drugs increased with the age of the driver. Of course, not all prescription drugs will affect a driver’s ability to safely drive, but many will. A driver’s use of commonly prescribed drugs that affect the central nervous system (CNS medications), such as sleep medications, anti-anxiety medications or pain relievers showed an increased risk of causing a crash among older drivers. Where two or more CNS medications were in the older driver’s system, the risk of a crash increased dramatically.

Consider this hypothetical scene: 63-year-old Margaret had trouble sleeping. Her doctor prescribed Ambien, a CNS depressant. The warning label on the drug warned the user not to drive unless fully alert and that the drug should only be taken immediately before bedtime. On one sleepless night Margaret tossed and turned even though she had taken an Ambien at bedtime. She decided to take one more Ambien in the middle of the night. That second pill finally knocked her out and she awoke at her normal waking hour the next morning. She didn’t feel fully alert but she attributed that to her short night’s sleep. Around 8:30 a.m., she got in her car just to run an errand a few blocks away. By time she saw the children in the school cross-walk, it was too late. She fatally hit a 6-year-old.

When the police arrived, Margaret was crying and confused. An officer asked her if she had taken any drugs and she mentioned that she took an Ambien in the middle of the night. She was shocked when the officer arrested her for suspected driving under the influence of drugs. When Margaret arrived at the police station, her blood was drawn. Later test results showed that she had Ambien in her system. Since there is no per se limit for the amount of prescription (or illegal) drugs a person can have in their system and still be legal to drive as there is for alcohol, Margaret was charged with driving under the influence of drugs and vehicular manslaughter.

While Margaret had no intention of harming anyone and certainly no intention to run over a child with her car, she was charged with vehicular manslaughter. This act was prosecuted as manslaughter because driving under the influence of a drug is considered an act of negligence and is an act that Margaret should have known was dangerous to human life. This type of vehicular manslaughter can be prosecuted as a felony or a misdemeanor and in Margaret’s case, it would probably be prosecuted as a misdemeanor. But an experienced DUI defense attorney would have a good chance of getting this charge dismissed altogether or at least, reduced to a lesser charge, on the grounds that Margaret did not act with negligence.

Even if Margaret had not fatally struck a child–say she just caused an accident or was driving in a manner that appeared unsafe to an officer, she could still face charges for driving under the influence of drugs and causing accident with or without injuries in the first instance or just a straight DUI in the second instance.

Of course, this scenario could apply to a driver of any age but we can expect to see more older drivers on the road who are taking medications that might affect their ability to drive.

If you or someone you love has been charged with a prescription drug DUI, contact Orange County DUI defense attorney William Weinberg. Attorney Weinberg will be happy to go over your options free of charge. This type of DUI presents many defenses that aren’t always available on an alcohol-related DUI. You may contact Mr. Weinberg at his Irvine office at 949-474-8008 or by emailing him at bill@williamweinberg.com.

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