Prescription Drugs and Driving in Sarasota

March 12, 2019 | Attorney, Matthew Dolman
Prescription Drugs and Driving in Sarasota

Accident Risk Increased by Prescription Drug Use

Driving under the influence of a controlled substance is illegal in Florida, just like in every other U.S. state, but not all drivers are aware that driving under the influence of prescription drugs prescribed by a doctor can result in the same penalties as driving under the influence of illegal drugs or alcohol. The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles (FLHSMV) estimates that more than 1,300 drug-related traffic crashes, involving 338 fatalities, occurred on Florida roads in 2017. These statistics don't include accidents where a driver was impaired by both drugs and alcohol. In Sarasota County, five crashes attributed to drugs other than alcohol killed seven and injured seven others. A mix of alcohol and other drugs contributed to four crashes that killed four an injured one in Sarasota. Law enforcement officials often struggle to properly monitor driving under the influence of prescription drugs. Whether because the data is too costly or too difficult to obtain, because drunk driving needs more attention, or because driving while impaired laws don't always differentiate between types of drugs, discerning between legal and illegal drug use can be difficult. Furthermore, some people may be using prescription drugs without a valid prescription, which makes that use illegal. Little research has been done in Florida or across the nation to examine the relationship between prescription drugs and driving, but one study in Maryland offers some valuable insight. In 2011, Baltimore researchers found that more than 60 percent of drivers involved in traffic crashes were taking some kind of prescription medication. While Baltimore is vastly different from Sarasota, and Maryland from Florida, experts suggest that the Maryland pattern is likely the same in other states. As age increases, so does an individual's likelihood of taking prescription medication. Accordingly, Florida, which has one of the oldest populations in the nation, likely has more drivers on the road who are taking prescription medications than in other states. In fact, studies show that more than 25 percent of drugged drivers involved in fatal crashes are over the age of 50.

Drugged Driving in Florida

Most people associate driving under the influence or impaired driving with alcohol. While drinking and driving is more prevalent in Florida and across the nation, drugged driving carries the same penalties under Florida law, even if someone is taking his or her own prescription medication.  Under Florida law, a person who is found guilty of driving under the influence my receive penalties that include fines and jail time; this includes both legal and illegal drugs. Under Florida law, even if drivers are under the influence of a legal prescription, they are still operating a vehicle illegally if they drive after taking prescription drugs that impair their ability to see, hear, walk, judge time and distance, and more. If a drug-impaired person causes an accident or fatality while driving, a court may also find them negligent and responsible for civil damages.

Prescription Drugs Found in Impaired Drivers

Not all prescription medications cause impairment, and for those that do, each person experiences side effects differently. Impaired drivers who are under the influence of prescription medication might have a variety of different substances in their body when they cause a motor vehicle accident. Keep in mind that alcohol exacerbates the symptoms of many prescription drugs, a warning that is typically included on the bottle when picking up a prescription from the pharmacy. Even one beer or glass of wine might cause impairment and lead to an accident when driving. Common prescription medications found in impaired drivers' systems include:

Opioids and Car Accident Risk

Opioids are a broad class of drugs that include natural opiates and synthetic versions, both of which bind to a person's opioid receptors in the brain and release dopamine into the body. Doctors prescribe opioids to manage acute and chronic pain. They are highly addictive, so drivers that have opioids in their system might be taking them legally or illegally. The most commonly prescribed opioids include oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), fentanyl, and codeine.

Antidepressants While Driving can be Dangerous

Research shows that more than 25 million adults in the U.S. have been taking antidepressants for at least two years. While antidepressants remain an important tool to manage mental health issues, they can also pose a risk to drivers on the road. When people are prescribed a new antidepressant or abruptly stop taking one, their body must adjust. It is during these times that regular antidepressant use might lead to a traffic accident. Commonly prescribed antidepressants include big pharma drugs like Zoloft, Prozac, and Paxil, as well as tricyclic antidepressants, like doxepin and amoxapine.

ADHD Medications

These psychotropic drugs help teens and adults mitigate the symptoms of ADHD. In fact, studies show that those with ADHD who take prescribed stimulants, such as Ritalin, Adderall, and Strattera, are less likely to be involved in a car accident than those with ADHD who don't properly medicate themselves. When ADHD medication impairs driving, the driver is typically abusing the drug. Some adults use these stimulants for weight loss, despite serious risks. Abusers of ADHD medication might steal it from a child or other family member or buy them illegally. These medications can also cause significant impairment when mixed with alcohol.

Benzodiazepines Can Result in Drowsy Driving

Benzodiazepines are commonly known as tranquilizers. Doctors use benzodiazepines to treat anxiety, insomnia, alcohol withdrawal, and other conditions. They include popular sleep aids, like Ambien and Lunesta, as well as short and long-acting drugs, such as Xanax and Diazepam. The calming effect of benzodiazepines can result in drowsy driving, especially if combined with alcohol.

Marijuana and Car Accident Risk

Marijuana is the most common drug found in impaired drivers, but it's difficult to discern between recreational use, which is still illegal in Florida, and legal medicinal use for pain management, cancer, and other conditions. Even though medicinal use is legal in Florida, marijuana use impairs driving and might lead to an accident. Furthermore, around 50 percent of drivers who died in car crashes that tested positive for marijuana also had opioids in their system.

How Might Prescription Drugs Impair Driving?

In the previous section, we discussed specific drugs and their side effects, but many more prescription drugs exist that might impair your driving. Here are some broad reactions to medication that might affect a driver's ability to safely operate a vehicle:
  • Nausea
  • Sleepiness
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred vision
  • Slowed movement
  • Fainting
  • Short attention span
  • Lack of focus

Can I Still Drive If I'm Taking Prescription Drugs?

Most people can operate a motor vehicle safely if they are using prescription medication. Ultimately, it depends on what side effects you might be experiencing and how they affect your ability to drive. In some cases, you might not be aware of negative impacts on your driving, but in many cases, honest communication with your doctor about how a specific drug affects you will allow you to continue to drive safely. For example, your doctor can help mitigate the negative effects of prescription drugs on your driving in the following ways:
  • Dosage adjustment. Your doctor can work with you to find the perfect dosage for your body. This means you can still reap the benefits of the medication, but it won't negatively affect your driving.
  • Timing adjustment. Sometimes, taking your medication at different times of the day can help ensure that you aren't impaired while driving. This might include taking prescription medications right before you go to sleep.
  • Substance adjustment. In most instances, more than one medication exists to treat a specific illness or condition. If you are experiencing adverse side effects that negatively affect your driving, your doctor might be able to try a different medication that your body will react to differently.
  • Lifestyle adjustment. You might not need to take medications that treat anxiety, diabetes, insomnia, and other conditions if you make some lifestyle changes. Your doctor can help you add an exercise or nutrition program to your life to help reduce your need for medication.

What Should I Do If I Am in an Accident Involving Prescription Drugs?

Florida is a no-fault insurance state, so if you were injured in an accident involving prescription drugs, your first step—after seeking medical attention—should be to file an insurance claim. Under Florida law, you are required to carry Personal Injury Protection (PIP) coverage if you own a vehicle. Following an accident, you need to contact your carrier immediately to file a claim, regardless of fault. PIP coverage only covers 80 percent of your medical expenses and 60 percent of your lost wages. When you have exhausted your policy limits or if the accident resulted in severe injuries, Florida law entitles you to seek additional compensation in civil court. When insurance claims escalate to personal injury lawsuits, fault becomes an important consideration. When prescription drugs cause a traffic accident, the victim may need to explore multiple avenues to recover damages depending on which driver was impaired and whose negligence caused the accident. Your attorney will advise you on your best path forward given your individual circumstances, but below we discuss some common examples of complaints that you might file following a traffic accident that involved prescription drug impairment:

Product Liability Claim

In cases where prescription drugs caused unknown or unexpected side effects that led to an accident, you might be able to hold the drug manufacturer—and any party in the drug's chain of distribution—liable for damages in civil court. These side effect might also be a result of a poorly designed medication, an error in production, or the failure of the company, your doctor, or your pharmacist to provide you with warnings and information about the dangers of driving after using the medication.

Medical Malpractice Claim

Doctors and their associated facilities might be liable for damages in a car accident involving prescription drug impairment if they prescribed the wrong medication or the wrong dosage to a driver, which resulted in side effects that caused a motor vehicle accident. Doctors might also prescribe medication that their patients are allergic to or that—when combined with another medication that a patient is taking—creates an adverse reaction. Pharmacists who fill the wrong prescription or dosage might also be liable for damages from a car accident involving prescription drugs in a Florida civil court.  

Accident Injury Negligence Claim

When a patient has been prescribed the appropriate medication and given all the necessary warnings about side effects, or when they are using the drug illegally, and they cause a car accident, victims' only recourse beyond their PIP coverage is a standard accident injury claim that squarely places fault on the driver for driving while impaired. In these cases, victims may recover additional medical costs and lost wages not otherwise covered by a PIP policy, such as future medical expenses, lost earning capacity, and non-economic damages, like pain and suffering, loss of consortium, scarring and disfigurement, and any other damages that apply to the case.  

Get the Legal Help You Need from a Skilled Sarasota Auto Accident Lawyer

If you have been in a motor vehicle accident that involved a driver impaired by prescription drugs, you might be entitled to recover damages in civil court. Depending on the circumstances, Florida law provides an accident victim with two to four years to take legal action following a car accident that involves prescription drugs. You should contact an experienced personal injury attorney as soon as possible following your accident to find out which time frame applies to your individual situation. This is likely a difficult time for you and your family. Aside from your physical pain and recovery, you might also be suffering from emotional stress and financial hardship due to medical expenses mounting at a time when your injury prevents you from working. Call the skilled legal team at Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA in Sarasota at (941) 210-7586, or contact us online, for a free consultation and to determine your eligibility for compensation. Our qualified car accident attorneys might be able to help you in a variety of ways, including by investigating your case, obtaining relevant documents and records, handling communication and negotiations with insurance companies, and aggressively litigating your case in the courtroom if a settlement isn't an option. While we cannot guarantee a favorable result in your case, we can promise to work hard to recover compensation for the full cost of your injuries. Dolman Law Group Accident Injury Lawyers, PA 8039 Cooper Creek Blvd Suite 105 University Park, FL, 34201 (727) 477-9660


Matthew Dolman

Personal Injury Lawyer

This article was written and reviewed by Matthew Dolman. Matt has been a practicing civil trial, personal injury, products liability, and mass tort lawyer since 2004. He has successfully fought for more than 11,000 injured clients and acted as lead counsel in more than 1,000 lawsuits. Always on the cutting edge of personal injury law, Matt is actively engaged in complex legal matters, including Suboxone, AFFF, and Ozempic lawsuits.  Matt is a lifetime member of the Million Dollar Advocates Forum and Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum for resolving individual cases in excess of $1 million and $2 million, respectively. He has also been selected by his colleagues as a Florida Superlawyer and as a member of Florida’s Legal Elite on multiple occasions. Further, Matt has been quoted in the media numerous times and is a sought-after speaker on a variety of legal issues and topics.

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