Alcohol and heavy machinery don’t mix. That’s common knowledge, thanks to decades of public awareness campaigns, education to eliminate drunk driving and legal crackdowns on drivers who get behind the wheel after they’ve had a few. But there’s been far less of an emphasis on the driving dangers of other substances. That’s why a recent report by Ireland’s Department of Health, which revealed that prescription medications (primarily benzos and other anti-anxiety medications) were linked to 30% of fatal traffic accidents, is so important.
For Drivers, Benzos are No Bueno
Statistical studies of traffic accidents and their causes are not new in the UK, as researchers there have been trying to learn more about the link between prescription drugs, impaired driving and traffic accidents for quite a while. What wasn’t clear until this year, however, was just how prominent a role medications play here. The Department of Health report, released on November 18th, analyzed 109 fatal traffic accidents from 2013. The fact that nearly one third of them implicated prescription medication as the cause is pretty damn alarming.
As prescription drug use—and abuse—increases, it’s becoming alarmingly apparent that these drugs are impacting society in unexpected ways. Joe Barry, a public health specialist at Trinity College Dublin, told the Irish Examiner, “Benzos are popping up everywhere. They are appearing in lots of different data sets and this is just the latest. A lot are being sold on the street and treatment clinics are seeing it.”
Barry believes the problem is that the guidelines for doctors for prescribing them are “only guidelines—they don’t have the force of law.” That being said, Irish policy makers have struggled to pass legislation that regulates prescription drugs; they just haven’t done so yet. In 2007, Ireland passed the Pharmacy Act, which regulates the pharmacy profession and pharmacies in Ireland; however, there hasn’t been significant legislation in this area for nearly a decade.
Driving Impaired Is A Driving Trend in Ireland
While impaired driving is on the rise in Ireland, these numbers are relative. The latest European Transport Safety Council’s (ETSC) Road Safety Performance Index (PIN) report showed that Ireland actually had one of the lowest death rates in Europe in proportion to the number of drivers on the road. According to the 2013 study, the EU average was 51 deaths per million population; Ireland’s average was 41 deaths per million population.
Even so, more drivers in Ireland are turning up with anti-anxiety medications in their systems. Experts can’t agree what’s causing this. Some suggest it’s an increase in the use of these medications in the population; some think that it’s insufficient education about medication side effects; others believe that the presence of prescription drugs is incidental, and didn’t actually impair the drivers in the study. The focus, as yet, isn’t on drug problems.
For now, Irish authorities are committed to eliminating unsafe road conditions, increasing the police force and making sure drivers and riders wear their seat belts. Gay Byrne, Ireland’s Road Safety Authority chairman, told the Irish Times that people start being “careless and complacent” once they think the odds “of encountering a yellow jacket around the next corner is remote.”
Impaired driving, whether because of alcohol, pot or benzos, creates a risk to everyone: drivers, passengers and bystanders. With a sample size that is barely over 100, it’s hard to generalize about drug use trends. However, 30% is a significant percentage, even in such a small study. If Irish traffic fatalities fail to decrease the way that policymakers hope, they will have to start looking outside the box—and perhaps even more inside the prescription pill bottle.