Prescription drugs impair drivers without their knowledge - abc27 WHTM

Prescription drugs impair drivers without their knowledge

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According to the Pennsylvania DUI Association, the number of people driving under the influence of alcohol is going down, but the number of people driving under the influence of drugs is going up.

The number of DUI drug arrests in Pennsylvania has nearly tripled from 5,529 in 2004 to 16,564 in 2013.  

Many of those people are on prescription drugs.  Some of them did not know they were impaired.

"The scary part of it is these are individuals also who do not want to drive impaired.  These aren't our folks you think of who go out and get high from whatever substance," said Tim Barker, chief deputy prosecutor with the York County District Attorney's office.

These are people who are taking their doctor-prescribed medications and being charged with DUI.  One of them is 61-year-old Amelia Whitmer of York County.

"I turned prematurely, meaning I turned prior to the road. I turned into a ditch," Whitmer said.

When police showed up they had some questions.

"Both state policemen asked me if I had been drinking.  And I said, 'no.  I do not drink.'  And I do not drink.  They said, 'you take prescription drugs?'  I said, 'yes I do,'" said Whitmer.

Whitmer takes a common anti-depressant.  Police decided to put her through a field sobriety test.

"They told me I was borderline and I said, 'what does that mean?" she said. "Well, we're not too sure, you know you could be a little impaired or not."

After a blood test, investigators determined there was more of the drug in Whitmer's system than the manufacturer suggests.  Police booked her for DUI.

"I couldn't believe it because I know that I was not impaired at all," said Whitmer.  "I had been on the increased dosage per my psychiatrists for, I'm going to say 10 years.  I'd never had a problem with it," she said.

Despite a doctor's note that agrees, Whitmer entered the DUI program.

"And if it weren't for the dollars, I would've taken it to court," said Whitmer.

DUI attorneys said there are dozens of other people across the Midstate with similar stories.

Barker said there are people who are driving impaired but do not realize it.

"We have many people that drive out there on our roadways saying, 'the doctor told me I could so therefore I must be okay.'  And in fact they're not," said Barker.

"Sometimes they get it wrong and sometimes the person's body, particularly older people, but anybody, can be affected by some of these, what we call PDI drugs, potentially driver impairing drugs, when they first take them until the body gets used to them," said George Geisler with the Pa. DUI Association.  "If the doctor prescribes an amount too high and that person takes one or two pills and goes out and drives, he may not feel he's impaired, but we see it," he said.

Geisler said it is also important to make sure you are taking your medication as prescribed.

"Not taking your drugs when you're supposed to and in the amount you're supposed to is not prescribed and therefore is a violation of the law," said Geisler.  "When should you take your sleep medication?  Not when you're going out driving! When you're going to bed! Ambien is a prime example."

Geisler also said you should check to see if your medication can be mixed with alcohol.

"Just a touch of that alcohol magnifies the effects of certain drugs, particularly your depressant drugs, which alcohol is one," he said. "So it's called the additive effect. 1+1=6.  It's new math."

Experts say it is your responsibility to research this information.

"You have to be aware of what's going on in your body.  And if you are exhibiting impairing effects, both through your driving conduct, through your field sobriety tests, you're responsible," Barker said.  "You can't say, 'well wait a minute.  Nobody told me, therefore I have no responsibility,'" he said.

Barker and Geisler both believe that is unfair.

"When you get your prescription, you go to the pharmacy.  And that pharmacy has that nice little check the box.  Do you want to be consulted or don't you?  And they have the warning labels that are, in my personal opinion, insufficient to properly educate," Barker said.  "It shouldn't be merely advisory this may impact your ability to safely operate heavy machinery.  This should be flat out saying this is an impairing substance."

"I think the medical community really has to do a better job educating their consumers of the drugs they're prescribing," Geisler said.

"We must fully embrace them and have them sit at the tables with us to go ahead and fix this problem," said Barker.  "Together I fully believe we can and will fix what is currently a crisis."

Until changes are made, Geisler wants people to know they are ultimately responsible for what goes in their bodies.

"There's no excuse for them not to take the time to read them because it could cost them their life if they don't," Geisler said.

Getting a drug DUI is equivalent to getting pulled over for having a .16 blood alcohol content or higher.  That is the highest level.  With no prior offenses the penalties are a 12 month license suspension, 72 hours to six months in prison, a $1,000 to $5,000 fine, and alcohol highway safety school treatment when ordered.

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