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What happens if I cause a car accident while using legal prescription drugs?

December 10, 2013 by Steven M. Gursten

prescription drugs

Today, I want to answer an interesting question I received from someone who takes prescription sleeping pills. The question was, “What can happen if she takes these pills, which are being lawfully prescribed by her doctor for a medical disorder but that leave her drowsy?” What happens if she causes a serious car accident while taking legal prescription medication?

First, this is a massive problem, not an isolated question. To get an idea of just how many drivers are under the influence of drugs, a 2007 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found  that 16.3% of nighttime drivers around the country tested positive for legal or illegal drugs. About 5,900 drivers were screened in the study.

And these drugs can cause significant side effects that can impair a driver’s perception and reaction time, decision-making, and ability to drive alert.

This issue is also now in the news. The FDA recently announced it is requiring the makers of Ambien and similar popular and widely prescribed sleeping pills to lower the dosage of their drugs due to studies pointing to a higher risk of injury and car crashes from morning drowsiness, according to a story on CBSnews.com, FDA tells drugmakers to lower doses for Ambien, other sleeping pills. The new doses apply to all insomnia treatments containing the drug zolpidem, which is sold under brands including Ambien, Edluar and Zolpimist.

The FDA cited new research that proves that sleeping pills remain in the bloodstream at levels high enough to interfere with morning driving and increase the risk of auto accidents. I can unfortunately support that fact as a car accident lawyer for nearly two decades.

In many of my own cases as an attorney who represents people injured in car accidents, I’ve also seen how these drugs play a role in causing car crashes. Even when people take the prescribed prescription, they can remain drowsy and groggy for hours and even days afterward.

I could go on. I could write about the other epidemic, which is people self-medicating and taking far more than prescribed doses. Many people are addicted to these pills, and  other addictive prescription medications that cause drowsiness, such as pain meds like Oxycodone and widely popular anti-anxiety meds like Xanax.

What if I cause a car accident in Michigan while on prescription drugs?

As an attorney, it is important to note that these drugs lower perception and reaction time and can impair driving judgement in the same ways as if the driver was driving drunk. That means that if these drugs are ingested in a knowingly abusive manner, where the person knew they would be a danger to others on the road, and then if someone is injured or killed in a car accident, then that person can be sued in much the same way in a legal complaint as would drunk driving.  In states that allow exemplary or punitive damages, the abuse of such drugs may allow for these additional counts.

Under Michigan law, it is “illegal to drive while intoxicated, or visibly impaired, by alcohol, illegal drugs, and certain prescribed medication.”
And Michigan’s “Anti-Drunken and Drugged Driving Laws” require swift and sure action and stiff penalties, depending on the charges, considering whether the driver is on illegal drugs, prescription drugs, is drunk driving or mixing drugs with drinking.

To test for alcohol or drugs, drivers are held to Michigan’s Implied Consent Law, which says if arrested, you will be required to take a chemical test to  determine your Bodily Alcohol Content (BAC) or to ascertain whether there are drugs in your body. Under Michigan’s Implied Consent Law, “all drivers are considered to have given their consent to this test. If you refuse to take the test, six points  will be added to your driving record and your license will be  suspended for one year.”

This is a separate consequence from any subsequent convictions resulting from the traffic stop.

But with prescription drugs, it’s not as easy as taking a test and getting charged.

While law enforcement officials  say anyone who drives while taking prescription drugs is at risk of arrest (not only those who drive recklessly), they still struggle with detecting the drugs and what level of drugs in the system impairs driving. The police also struggle with the challenge of prosecuting someone who was taking valid prescriptions. This is according to a New York Times article, Drivers on prescription drugs are hard to convict.

Finally, it is important for all of us to remember that December is national Drunk and Drugged Driving Month. It is a time to raise awareness of all of the ways people can drive impaired and the serious dangers of such behavior.  Many people believe driving “under the influence” involves only illegal drugs and booze.

But legal drugs that are prescribed by doctors can be just as dangerous and addicting.

For more information about driving on prescription drugs in Michigan, here’s a comprehensive document from the Michigan.gov on substance abuse, and driving laws and penalties in Michigan.

Related information:

Tips to prevent drowsy driving car accidents

 – Photo courtesy of Creative Commons, by BitterScripts

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