Driving While Intoxicated: It’s Not Just About Alcohol

By David E. Hershey, Traffic Violations Attorney

Many people think the term “DUI” only applies to operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, but the term “intoxicated” actually covers a whole host of substances, not just alcohol. In fact, Pennsylvania courts have said anything that has an influence on the body is a “drug.” So that cold medicine you are taking or the prescription anti-anxiety drug your doctor prescribed could potentially make you an unsafe driver.

The Role of Prescription Drugs and OTC Medication in DUI Cases

If there is evidence that you were incapable of safely operating a motor vehicle while taking a prescription drug, prescription drug combination, or an over-the-counter medication, you can still be charged with a DUI—even if those drugs were used in the therapeutic range (the medically approved concentration in the blood stream). Furthermore, even if a blood test is generally favorable to the motorist, the arresting officer’s observations and field coordination tests may be admissible in court.

In my practice I frequently see problems related to:

  • Anti-anxiety and depression medications.
  • Pain medications, especially potent substances such as Vicodin or OxyContin. Not only are the effects of these medications powerful for those who are actively taking them, they are also dangerous for those who stop taking them, as the withdrawal symptoms can cause significant physical symptoms (nausea, cramping, sweating) that could make you unsafe behind the wheel.
  • Prescription sleep aids.
  • Methadone treatment that is not properly managed.
  • Any prescription or OTC medications that are not taken as directed.
  • Medications taken in combination with other prescription and/or non-prescription medications.
  • Alcohol consumption by those taking prescription and non-prescription substances.

Can I Drive if I Have to Take Medication?

So what should you do to ensure you are not putting yourself and others in danger? Make sure you discuss with your doctor the use of the medications you are taking, especially if you are taking them in combination with other substances, including OTC medications and alcohol. Make sure you are aware of how the medications may impact your fatigue levels, particularly as you acclimate to their presence in your blood stream. And as time goes on, watch for signs of increasing tolerance to the side effects of the drugs and other substances you are taking.

Follow your doctor’s instructions carefully, but if you still find yourself facing charges related to your operation of a vehicle while taking any medication, make sure you call our traffic violation lawyers right away.

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