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A much-needed reality check for medicated drivers

Published September 13, 2012

The American Automobile Association (AAA) has just launched a new online reality-checker whereby seniors can see if their favorite prescriptions will affect their driving.

Noting that at least 8 in 10 seniors are hopped up on prescription drugs regularly, the AAA claims that only half of those 65+ actually check with their doctor to see if it’s okay to drive that way. It may be more than that, but many have forgotten.

Conveniently, the AAA has launched RoadwiseRX, an online tool that details the side effects of prescription drugs commonly prescribed to typical seniors. Visitors can input their drug or drugs of choice and the site will churn out a litany of reasons you shouldn’t take drugs, period.

That is, on top of citing a number of obvious reasons a cocktail of drugs can make good drivers bad and bad drivers worse, RoadwiseRX also references medication interactions as well as food interactions, the latter listed for herbal supplements, which are classified as food-nutritional supplements.

This rather amazing bit of computated cross reference comes courtesy of Lexi-Comp Inc., an authoritative provider of drug information and clinical content for the healthcare industry.

Plainly, seniors often take multiple medications due to chronic medical conditions, and it’s equally plain that certain types of medications – antidepressants, for example – are likely to have some effect on cognitive function and motor skill. In fact, the AAA points to studies that show a medicated senior has a 41 per cent increase in “crash risk,” though there’s no base line mentioned regarding an unmedicated senior’s crash risk. Nonetheless, even over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines can have the same effect on driving as being above the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration. Go figure.

“Earlier research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that nearly one out of five older drivers use five or more prescription medications,” said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger, adding that the need to develop a tool to help older drivers understand the safety risk was “critical,” which is why they’re getting around to it just now.

Putting the drug effect to the test, we input a number of common drugs typically marketed to the silver-haired set. Specifically, we invented a hypothetical senior and called him Bob. Bob is regularly (and perhaps irresponsibly) hopped up on Cialis (tadalafil), Proventil (albuterol), Lipitor (atorvastatin), Wellbutrin (buPROPion), Flonase (fluticasone nasal), and Zoloft (sertraline).

For good measure, knowing each of those prized drugs have “anxiety” and “depression” listed as common side effects in those TV commercials that spend most of their allotted time telling you why you shouldn’t take them while showing happy retirees riding bikes or putting the moves on their significant others, we threw in some Valerian (valerian), a wives’ tale herbal supplement said to calm and tranquilize, naturally.

Lo and behold, RoadwiseRX dutifully spilled the beans on what Bob can expect from his prescribed concoction.

Interaction among the medications was revealed to make little sense beyond some rather urgent advice to contact your doctor but, by all means, Bob, keep taking your drugs in the meantime.

Driving hazard-wise, the results offered a repetitive litany of fantastically fatal scenarios in four different categories of danger, namely: 1) Trouble staying alert or awake, 2) Difficulty concentrating on the road, 3) Difficulty Maintaining Control of the Vehicle, and 4) Changes in Demeanor, all due to the potential side-effects of Bob’s prescribed concoction, which are: Agitation (x 2), amnesia (x 2), anxiety (x 3), back pain (x 3), blurred vision (x 3), chest pain (x 4), confusion (x 2), cramps (x 2), depression (x 2), dizziness (x 6!), drowsiness, eye pain, fainting (x 2), fatigue (x 2), headache (x 5), high blood pressure (x 2), hostility, hypertension (x 2), hypotension (x 3), insomnia (x 5), irritability (x 2), leg cramps, lightheadedness (x 2), low blood pressure (x 2), muscle spasms, nausea (x 6), nervousness (x 3), nightmares, paresthesia (x 4), restlessness, seizures (x 2), sleepiness (x 4), stroke (x 2), tinnitus (x 4), tremors, vomiting (x 6), and weakness (x 4).

Interestingly, the herbal supplement, Valerian, caused no listed side effects and was not mentioned as a driving risk. Instead, Valerian did turn up in the “Food Interaction” warnings in that it was known to decrease the effectiveness of the name brand drugs and that you shouldn’t take the inexpensive, readily available supplement if you’re also taking the proprietary, expensive, doctor doled prescriptions. Draw your own conclusion there.

Meanwhile, Bob has quit all his prescriptions, moved to the west coast and taken up granola full time.