“Driving under the influence” is often synonymous with impaired motorists who’ve had too much alcohol to drink. But a person who operates a motor vehicle under the influence of prescription medication can be just as dangerous behind the wheel as someone who’s thrown back too many beers or cocktails.
This probably happens more than we realize, but as the Governors Highway Safety Association (GSHA) notes in a 2017 report on Drug-Impaired Driving, the public is not as aware of drugged driving or how dangerous it is because it isn’t viewed in the same way that alcohol-impaired driving is.
According to the GHSA, tracking down drug-impaired driving is more complex than tracking down alcohol-impaired driving because:
- Hundreds of different drugs can impair drivers.
- Some drugs that can impair driving are illegal to use, some are legal to use under certain conditions, and some are freely available over-the-counter.
- For many drugs, the relations between a drug’s presence in the body, its effect on driving, and its effects on crash risk are complex, not understood well, and vary from driver to driver.
- Data on drug presence in crash-involved drivers are incomplete in most jurisdictions, inconsistent from state to state, and sometimes inconsistent across jurisdictions within states.
- It’s more difficult for law enforcement to detect drug impairment at the roadside than alcohol impairment.
- Laws regarding driving while under the influence of drugs (DUID) vary across the states.
- It’s more difficult to prosecute and convict a driver for DUID than for alcohol-impaired driving (DUI).
The report also highlights the complexity of different drugs and the complicated issues they involve when compared to those involving alcohol. Among those reasons are:
- Data on use by drivers and in crashes are limited for drugs but abundant for alcohol
- Trends involving driver drug use is increasing while alcohol consumption has been decreasing, according to the report
- Driving skill impairment varies by drug type, but it’s well-documented for alcohol
- Driver believes that some drugs don’t impair driving and that there’s low arrest risk, but alcohol does impair drivers
- Societal attitudes. There are no strong attitudes on drugs and driving, according to the report, but drinking and driving is socially unacceptable for many, and that having a designated driver is the norm
Like Other Drugs, Xanax Use Can Impair Drivers
Potent pain relievers, such as Percocet and OxyContin, and anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax and Ativan, can put drivers—and everyone around them—in a dangerous situation. Even over-the-counter cold medications and antihistamines can cause driver impairment.
Other medications that can impair driving are:
- Some antidepressants
- Narcotic pain pills
- Sleep medications
In this blog, we’ll take a closer look at Xanax and how using it while driving is probably not a good idea.
What Is Xanax?
Xanax, generically known as alprazolam, is a powerful, fast-acting sedative that is prescribed to treat anxiety associated with panic disorders and different kinds of phobias. The medication is a short-acting benzodiazepine, which means it is quickly effective and peaks quickly in the bloodstream. It can be obtained legally only through a prescription issued by a medical professional. Xanax is among the most prescribed medications in the United States. Data show that the number of benzodiazepine prescriptions written increased 67 percent to 13.5 million per year in 2013 from 8.1 million in 1999, states National Public Radio in its report about the medications.
Xanax works by suppressing the central nervous system. Once the drug binds to certain areas of the brain’s gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors, nerve cell activity slows and users begin to feel calm and relaxed. Relief is usually felt within 15 minutes to an hour after taking it, and this feeling can last for a few hours. MentalHealthDaily.com writes, “The general consensus among researchers is that the onset of Xanax’s action falls within a range of 15 to 60 minutes. Evidence suggests that approximately 90 percent of the peak effect derived from Xanax should be attained [by most users] within the first hour of its administration.
“Moreover, on average, the maximal peak effect of Xanax will be attained within 0.7 and 1.8 hours after its administration; the compressed tablet (CT) usually kicks in slightly quicker than the extended-release (XR) formula.”
The site also explains that Xanax has a rapid onset of cation because “when [it’s] ingested, it is efficiently absorbed, metabolized, distributed throughout the body tissue, and uptaken with the brain.”
This highly addictive medication is intended for short-term use. If it is taken longer than prescribed or abused, users are at risk of developing a physical and psychological dependence on it. The best way to tell if dependence has occurred is the way one feels when they no longer take the medication or reduce the dosage. If there are noticeable changes, then those are withdrawal symptoms, and users may need to address their Xanax dependence with professional drug treatment.
It is important to note that not all dependence on benzodiazepines such as Xanax happens as a result of misuse, abuse or addiction.
Harris Stratyner, co-chairman of the medical scientific subcommittee of the nonprofit group National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence told Fox News in 2014, “Frequently, it’s not because they’ve been abusing the drugs; it can be caused by following the prescription their doctor gave them.”
Common Concerns About Xanax and Driving
In short, Xanax and driving are not a good mix. That’s likely obvious on the surface, but let’s look at some reasons why.
Xanax Can Slow Your Reaction Time While Driving
HuffPost has reported that Xanax has been called “alcohol in a pill” because of its similarities to the substance, and the publication has listed the anti-anxiety drug as one of six medications that a person should never take when driving. The drug’s tranquilizing effects can affect the reaction time when behind the wheel and it also can impair judgment, which we all need when we’re driving.
Xanax’s powerful effects don’t start to kick in till after a certain window of time, so until they do, users may feel in control of their bodies and faculties. However, after the medication hits peak plasma levels in the blood, the body’s central nervous system starts to respond to the medicine, and that’s when users typically feel drowsiness, lethargy, dizziness, slowed breathing, and/or muscle weakness. They also may have a diminished ability to concentrate and slurred speech, which also happens when someone has alcohol intoxication. While the level of impairment varies by the person, all of these are incompatible with driving or any activity that requires one to be alert.
But here’s another aspect of drugged driving that is kind of alarming. It is possible to take Xanax and not be aware of whether it’s working or not.
When the medication is taken as medically directed by a person who’s healthy, the medication should always work in less than 60 minutes, according to MentalHealthDaily.com. But that’s not true for everyone.
“Despite the fact that Xanax should always take effect within an hour of administration, not all users will be cognizant of its action. Persons who aren’t consciously aware that they’re under the influence of Xanax within one-two hours of administration may wonder whether the drug is actually working,” the site says.
If a person takes Xanax and doesn’t feel it working in that one-hour window, then it’s possible the dosage is too low or the person may have a high tolerance for it.
Driving and Xanax Combo Increases Risks of Car Crashes
Because Xanax impairs judgment and reaction times, people who take the medication are at increased risk of causing an accident. A 2011 study in which researchers examined the link between psychoactive drugs and the risk of traffic accidents found “Benzodiazepine use was associated with a significant increase in the risk of traffic accidents and responsibility of drivers for accidents. The association was more pronounced in the younger drivers. The accident risk was markedly increased by co-ingestion of alcohol.”
Polydrug use is common among people who misuse or abuse substances, and people commonly pair alcohol with benzos like Xanax to either enhance the effects of both drugs for a stronger high or avoid withdrawal effects from drug use. Combining the two is an unsafe practice, and using them together increases the toxicity of alcohol and the chances of having a fatal overdose.
According to ResearchGate.net, which featured studies examining the relationship between benzodiazepine use and traffic accidents, “more research has to be done to elucidate the relationship between benzodiazepine use and injury severity.”
Still, as research continues, “many drivers do not understand how various drugs can affect driving ability and increase crash risk,” GHSA reports.
Xanax and Driving Can Land You In Legal Hot Water
Driving Under the Influence of Drugs, known as DUID, is illegal in every state and in the same way that driving while impaired by alcohol, or DUI is illegal, writes GHSA. It goes on to explain, “DUID has two requirements: the driver must exhibit signs of impairment through behavior observed by a law enforcement officer and the impairment must be linked to a drug.”
It also explains that there are three types of state laws regarding DUID.
- Driving Under the Influence of Drugs (DUID): Illegal to drive while impaired by any drug
- Zero Tolerance: Illegal to drive with any amount of specified drugs in the body
- Per se: Illegal to drive with amounts of specified drugs in the body exceeding set limits
PensacolaDefenseLawyer.com writes, “For many people, the realization that a prescribed medication is impairing their driving only comes after a roadside stop by law enforcement.”
So, What Can Xanax Users Do?
People who take prescription Xanax and need transportation are advised to talk about the medication’s potential side effects with their doctor. A medical professional can provide insight into how best to navigate Xanax use when it comes to driving. The doctor may suggest adjusting the prescribed Xanax dose taken or another medication may be used altogether. Another mode of transportation may also be required, such as a bus, train, cab, or ride-share service.
Start Xanax Addiction Recovery Today
Pathway to Hope, a Delphi Behavioral Health Group facility, specializes in helping people who are battling an addiction to Xanax or any substance, whether it’s legal or illegal. We focus on the roots of your addiction and mental health condition and help you or your loved one start healing from substance abuse and give you the tools to leave it behind for good.
If you or someone you know is struggling with Xanax prescription dependence, whether physical or psychological, call Pathway to Hope at 844-557-8575 today or reach out to us online, so we can help you find the right treatment program. Don’t delay. If you need addiction treatment, now is the time to make that important step for your health and your life.