Motorists driving with dangerous amounts of prescription medications in their system

By 23rd May 2023No Comments
  • A survey commissioned by IAM RoadSmart has diagnosed Britain’s hidden drug-drive problem, after our survey found that almost 1-in-3 motorists do not know maximum dosages of prescription medication before they will impact their capability to drive
  • A bitter pill to swallow… over 1-in-5 of respondents rarely or never check whether their prescription medication will impact their ability to drive
  • 1-in-4 are unlikely to avoid driving after taking over-the-counter medications that warn against using heavy machinery, like antihistamines or cold and flu remedies
  • IAM RoadSmart wants an overhaul of the prescription system with a focus on clear communication of risk and side effects in relation to driving

A hidden epidemic of drug-driving is at large in Britain, with almost 1-in-3 motorists unwittingly driving with dangerous levels of drugs in their system.

The drugs in question are not illicit substances like cannabis or cocaine, but are in fact prescription and over-the-counter medications, including painkillers and antidepressants.

Indeed, a survey of over 2,000 motorists commissioned by the charity has revealed that 30 per cent of drivers do not know what the maximum dose of prescription medication is before it will impact their driving. Meanwhile, 31 per cent of those surveyed do not know how long they should wait before driving after taking their medication.

Over 1-in-5 (22 per cent) drivers either rarely (14 per cent) or never (8 per cent) check whether their medication will impact their ability to drive, while over 1-in-4 (28 per cent) are unlikely to avoid driving after taking over-the-counter medications, such as antihistamines or cold and flu remedies, that come with a warning not to use heavy equipment or machinery.

Under UK law, it’s an offence to drive or attempt to drive while unfit because of drug use – and driving laws do not distinguish between illegal and prescribed drugs. However, those who have driven while over the specified legal limit may have a medical defence, as long as they have followed the advice of healthcare professionals or are not causing the motorist to be unfit to drive.

Although it’s ultimately the driver’s legal responsibility to inform the DVLA of their fitness to drive, it is also the responsibility of GPs and pharmacists to offer suitable clinical advice to patients regarding the likely risks of prescribed medications.

But we at IAM RoadSmart are calling for a review of the prescription process, as a lack of awareness among drivers may have led to an increase of drug-drivers on UK roads. Since the law changed in 2015, cases of driving with a specified controlled drug above a certain limit have increased year-on-year, with convictions reaching 27,962 in 2021.*

Potential reforms may include following the example of Australia, where medication packaging is legally required to display a visible warning if a driver could be impaired by the substance, or France, where a colour-coded system on medication labels is used, which helps make potential risks clearer.

Antony Kildare, CEO at IAM RoadSmart, commented:

“When people think of driving while under the influence of drugs, they will probably, quite understandably, think of those who get behind the wheel after taking illicit and recreational substances such as cocaine, cannabis or ecstasy.

“And yet legal drugs that are used for medicinal purposes can often be just as potent, and could profoundly impact a driver’s judgement while behind the wheel. However, under the current system, this threat may not be understood – resulting in a lack of awareness of what should be basic considerations, such as maximum dosages or whether the medication will impact their ability to drive.

“We would like to see a new and reformed system which will provide more transparency on how medications can affect a motorist’s ability to drive, and clearly communicate potential risks to motorists.

“We also want drivers to be more aware of how they feel after taking medication for their own safety, so we are urging drivers to be vigilant of any potential symptoms of taking their medication and consider how the side-effects could impair their driving. This may include drowsiness, light-headedness, shakes and dizziness.”

IAM RoadSmart recently called on the government to take urgent action against Britain’s decade-long drug-drive problem. You can learn more by reading our campaign statement on this issue.


To learn more about how IAM RoadSmart can help you enhance your fleet, contact us.

Gary Bates

Author Gary Bates

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