We Drugged 3 Women and Had Them Drive: What We All Learned

blurred vision while driving

Becky, Diane and Paula of Boca Raton, Florida, must be true-blue Dr. Oz fans – and good sports – because when we asked them if they were willing to take undisclosed over-the-counter medications and then drive on a test track and simulator for us, all three said yes! Oh, and did we mention we were going to videotape the entire thing and put the results on national television? They still said yes!

We had one woman take an allergy drug, another a nighttime flu remedy and the third an antihistamine. Here’s what got my attention: When we interviewed the women before they drove, they thought they were fine to drive. They couldn’t tell they were impaired. So were they?

On the test track, they smashed into the barrier while parallel parking, went left when we said to go right and knocked over cones on the slalom course. Worse yet, on the driving simulator, they fell asleep at the wheel, veered yards out of their lane and crashed multiple times. Here’s the takeaway lesson to me: Over-the-counter medications sabotage your judgment, so you need to make the decision not to drive before you take them.

Here was the other stunner: Two of the women took their medications the night before they got behind the wheel, yet they were still impaired several hours into the next morning. I myself have certainly made the mistake of believing a nighttime medicine wouldn’t follow me into my car the next morning, and I know I’m not alone.

Only one person involved in our experiment was unsurprised by the results. Dr. Gary Kay, PhD and his company, Cognitive Research Corporation, has been conducting research on the link between medications and driving for years. “We’ve really taken a leadership role in using driving simulators to study the effects that medications can have on your driving safety,” said Kay, a neuropsychologist. Kay says he’s deeply concerned about the effect OTC meds can have and the fact that people don’t seem to realize how serious they are. “It scares me now and has scared me for a long time. Especially when we continue to provide evidence about what that effect is and just how dramatic the effect is.”

And it’s not just the OTC meds you’d think. Sure, we all know that some cough medicines contain alcohol, so we’d expect them to affect our driving. But Kay says the antihistamine diphenhydramine, the main ingredient in many allergy medications, is an often overlooked problem for drivers. Not only is diphenhydramine in antihistamines, it is often added to other medications you wouldn’t think of, like sleep aids, motion sickness medications and even medications for Parkinson’s disease.

The Food and Drug Administration recently warned that over-the-counter medicines have more of an impact on our driving than we realize, which was the impetus for our experiment and story. That warning contained more types of medicine you probably wouldn’t think to worry about, namely, antidiarrheals and anti-emetics. Here’s what the FDA said about each:

  •  Antidiarrheals: Medicines that treat or control symptoms of diarrhea can cause drowsiness and affect your driving. One of these is loperamide, an active ingredient in many leading antidiarrheals.
  • Antiemetics: Medicines that treat nausea, vomiting and dizziness associated with motion sickness can cause drowsiness and impair driving as well.

The FDA also offered some guidance for reading medication labels so that you’ll know when to worry. Here it is:

  • First read the active ingredients section and compare it to all the other medicines you are using. Make sure you are not taking more than one medicine with the same active ingredient. Then make sure the purpose and uses sections of the label match or fit the condition you are trying to treat.
  • Next, carefully read the entire warnings section. Check whether the medicine should not be used with any condition you have, or whether you should ask a health-care professional if you can use it. See if there’s a warning that says when you shouldn’t’t use the medicine at all, or when you should stop using it.
  • The when using this product section will tell you how the medicine might make you feel and will include warnings about drowsiness or impaired driving. Look for such statements as “you may get drowsy,” “marked drowsiness will occur,” “be careful when driving a motor vehicle or operating machinery” or “do not drive a motor vehicle or operate machinery when using this product.”