Prescription drugs are generally a good thing – when used in the right dosages and taken at the right intervals. They can also be a problem. Prescription drug labels often include a warning not to operate vehicles or machinery. Many medicines can cause drowsiness, sleepiness, decreased awareness or increased reaction time. If you are behind the wheel of a vehicle and using prescription drugs you may be a danger to yourself, other drivers and pedestrians.
In Washington state, a person is guilty of “driving while under the influence of intoxicating liquor or any drug if the person drives a vehicle within this state while under the influence of or affected by intoxicating liquor or any drug; or while the person is under the combined influence of or affected by intoxicating liquor and any drug. Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 46.61.502(1)(a)-(b).” In short, you could be charged with a DUI if you are found to be impaired by driving with prescription drugs just as though you were driving drunk. Importantly, even if the drugs are legally prescribed, that is not necessarily a legal defense if you are impaired.
Driving after taking drugs is a national problem. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration did a National Roadside Survey in 2007 and found more than 16 percent of weekend, nighttime drivers tested positive for illegal, prescription, or over-the-counter medications. This is broader than prescription drugs only, but prescriptions for everything from painkillers to anti-anxiety medication are increasing at a rapid pace.
The influence of prescription drugs may not be as obvious even if the level of impairment is similar. Being drunk or high is usually accompanied by signs like slurred speech or impaired movement. Drivers under the influence of prescription drugs may not display these symptoms, but still lack the judgment and response to drive safely on public roads. Nevertheless, a police officer who believes a person may be under the influence of a drug can administer a field sobriety test. Anyone driving a motor vehicle in Washington is considered to have given consent to tests to determine the alcohol concentration or presence of any drug in their system.
Driving while drugged, even if legally prescribed, does not have the same stigma as driving under the influence of either alcohol or illegal drugs. What it may have is the same consequences – both in terms of accident risk and in terms of legal risk. A conviction for driving under the influence of prescription drugs will also impact your Washington auto insurance. Drivers should keep in mind that it is dangerous and irresponsible to endanger themselves and others by driving a vehicle under less than ideal conditions. Take prescription drugs as instructed and that includes following any orders to stay away from driving.