People take minor tranquilizers such as benzodiazepines for anxiety conditions. Most contain labeling that indicates a person shouldn’t drive unless they know how the tranquilizer will affect them and tranquilizers used for sleep such as Ambien, Lunesta and Sonata shouldn’t be used at all while driving. Common symptoms experienced by those who use benzodiazepines include:
• Unsteadiness of gait
• Blurry vision
• Poor coordination
• Reduced inhibition
• Impaired Judgment
These symptoms can lead to poor driving skills and traffic accidents. Some people can drive without any memory of having done so. The blurry vision makes for a dangerous driving situation and the lack of coordination means the driver cannot maneuver the streets very well without hitting something.
Researchers have shown that the minor tranquilizers like benzodiazepines have been found to interfere with driving skills and affect hand-eye coordination and the driver’s reaction time. There have been several studies showing a relationship between traffic accidents and the use of benzodiazepines. Some feel that the association between traffic accidents and benzodiazepines is instead related to concomitant use of alcohol or simply to the anxiety people who take benzodiazepines often display. Regardless of the reason, it appears that benzodiazepines shouldn’t be used in people who are driving at the same time.
Alcohol use at the same time as benzodiazepines potentiates all the symptoms of the use of benzodiazepines and makes the driver even more uncoordinated, at risk for amnesia and with more impaired judgment. The alcohol blood level doesn’t even have to be above the legal limit in order to have a profound effect on the driver.
The effects of the benzodiazepine can be as short as 3-4 hours or as long as 12-24 hours. Medications like clonazepam have a particularly long half live so that you might experience problems with impairment as long as 24 hours after taking the drug. Xanax, on the other hand has an extremely short half life. Librium and valium have extremely long half lives and Ativan has a half life similar to Xanax. Patients should know the half live and length of activity of the various benzodiazepines so they know when it is safe to drive.
A study by the NIH looked at the odds ratio for mortality and for emergency treatment at an emergency room and found that the odds ratio was 1.45 to 2.4 compared to those not taking benzodiazepines. Benzodiazepines were a factor in about 5-10 percent of accidents with one study showing the factor of accidents of 65 percent in benzodiazepine use. In cases where the patient didn’t have a blood alcohol level over the legal limit but that had an accident, benzodiazepines were found in 43 percent to 65 percent of patients. In a case controlled study, 5 percent of drivers and only 2 percent of controls had used benzodiazepines at the time of their accident.
It is recommended that physicians clearly state to patients the probable risks of driving when using these types of medications, including the fact that they shouldn’t be used with alcohol.