Americans’ increased reliance on prescription drugs is saving lives, but endangering them at the same time.
The Sept. 18 Gazette story about prescription drug overdoses now accounting for more U.S. deaths per year — 37,485 in 2009 — than traffic accidents was a real eye-opener. Granted, many of those deaths stemmed from people abusing powerful painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs, but in most cases the drugs were lawfully prescribed for someone, if not the person who took more of them than they should have or mixed them with other drugs and/or alcohol.
Equally alarming are the stories of people who take prescription drugs as directed, then cause traffic accidents because the drugs have impacted their mental acuity. It may be happening far more than authorities realize because motorists aren’t always tested after accidents; because not all drugs cause problems when taken alone but do so when combined with others, or with alcohol; or because they only cause problems for some users, and not all the time. So they’re often dispensed with little more than a warning that many motorists choose to ignore.
No one, after all, wants to give up their right to drive. But like someone who thinks they’re OK to get behind the wheel after a couple of drinks, a person in a fog from a cocktail of prescription drugs lacks the proper judgment to make such a call. Not only does it seem that laws should be toughened, but research needs to be improved, and doctors and pharmacists also need to do a better job counseling their patients.
What’s known so far about the fatal accident in Voorheesville Aug. 10, in which three women standing outside a church were run down by a 55-year-old woman, is inconclusive, though it suggests that the prescription drugs the motorist was taking for symptoms related to Parkinson’s disease may have been a factor. Toxicology tests show she had Xanax and Wellbutrin (which treat anxiety and depression) plus Serequol, an anti-psychotic drug, in her system. Each can cause drowsiness, enough to affect a person’s ability to drive, and must be dispensed with appropriate warnings. The law even allows someone who has taken the three drugs together to drive, but if a doctor doesn’t say no, it’s the patient who gets to decide. That seems like a crapshoot.
LuAnn Burgess’ foot apparently never even went for the brakes as her SUV sped off the road and toward pedestrians at 46 mph. Even if she’d taken her meds as directed — something police are still trying to determine — the evidence suggests she shouldn’t have been driving.
Studies show that more than two out of three drivers over the age of 55 regularly take one or more prescription drugs that could affect their ability to drive. That’s reason enough for the government to do a reality check. Are all these drugs really safe enough to allow the overwhelming majority of their users to drive? Can the drugs be combined without adverse effects, and if not, what safeguards can be taken to keep doctors and pharmacists from endangering the public’s welfare by allowing people who take them to drive?