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Drugs and the Older Driver

Senior Safety, Vehicle & Road Safety

No matter what your age, being able to drive means independence. This independence comes with the responsibility to drive safely.

Older drivers are very likely to be taking several medications, some of which may affect driving skills. To be a safe driver, you need to use your medication correctly and know how it can affect your ability to drive.

According to the Canada Safety Council, the main factors in collisions involving older drivers are slow response, not seeing a sign, car, or pedestrian, and interaction with other drivers. Medications can make a driver more susceptible to any of these factors – and Canadians over age 65 take an average of nine medications daily, including prescription, over-the-counter and herbal blends.1

How Medications Affect Driving

Medication can have a positive or negative effect on driving ability. Some people, such as epileptics, may not be able to drive at all without medication. An older driver with untreated depression is at high risk due to decreased concentration and slower decision-making. However, treatment may also carry a risk – 10 milligrams of Valium® (an anti-anxiety medication) can produce more driving impairment than a blood alcohol concentration of 0.10; the Criminal Code limit in Canada is 0.08.

Physicians prescribe benzodiazepines, to combat anxiety and insomnia among seniors. They can have side effects such as drowsiness, impaired motor function and confusion.

Drugs that slow you down also reduce your ability to make decisions and process information rapidly. Seniors taking painkillers that contain codeine or propoxyphene may experience sedation and mild impairment. Even over-the-counter drugs can reduce driving ability. Antihistamines can cause drowsiness and poor concentration. Tranquilizers or cold remedies, such as cold tablets, cough syrup, and sleeping pills, can reduce driving ability. Most seniors do not discuss their over-the-counter drugs with their doctor.

Combinations of drugs can produce unexpected side effects and bad reactions. If you have more than one doctor prescribing medications without knowing what the others are prescribing, or if your doctor does not know about the over-the-counter drugs you are taking, you could be in danger.

Alcohol has a powerful impact on the body, physically and psychologically. With age, tolerance for alcohol decreases steadily, and the body processes it less efficiently. Combining alcohol with medications is risky whether or not you are behind the wheel. For instance, it can lead to falls. The only safe practice is to avoid alcohol completely if there is any chance that you will have to drive.

Impaired driving, whether due to medications, alcohol or a combination, is not only dangerous and socially unacceptable; it is also a criminal offence.

Tips for Older Drivers on Medications

Driving is a complicated task. Don’t let yourself be impaired by any kind of medication, including over-the-counter drugs and herbal or alternative remedies.

  • Take all medications according to the instructions.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist about the effects of prescribed medications on driving, and whether even a small amount of alcohol will increase the effect.
  • Make sure the combination of your medications does not impair your driving skills. If you have more than one doctor, make sure all of them know everything you are taking.
  • Never mix medications, or share them with another person.
  • If the label says “Do not use while operating heavy machinery” let someone else drive. With some medications, you may not be able to drive at all. If in doubt, choose not to drive
  • Take a driver improvement course, such as the Canada Safety Council’s 55 Alive. Aging brings changes in hearing, vision, flexibility and reaction time. You can learn to compensate for those changes.

Some Medication Effects For The Older Driver

Older drivers need to know how prescription medicines and over-the-counter drugs can affect their driving ability. Here are some examples.

Medical Condition Type Of Medication Potential Effects
Anxiety Sedatives Drowsiness, staggering, blurred vision
Arthritis and rheumatism Analgesics (pain relievers) Drowsiness, inability to concentrate, ringing in ears
Common cold Antihistamines, Antitussive (cough suppressants) Drowsiness, blurred vision, dizziness
Fatigue Stimulants Over excitability, false sense of alertness, dizziness
Heart Arrhythmia Antiarrhythmics Blurred vision, dizziness
Hypertension Antihypertensives (blood pressure drugs) Drowsiness, blurred vision, dizziness

1. Prescriptions for Health: Report of the Pharmaceutical Inquiry of Ontario, (The Lowy Commission Report), Toronto, 1990.

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