Put on the Brakes – Sleeping Pills & Driving Don’t Mix

Put on the Brakes – Sleeping Pills & Driving Don’t Mix


Before you pop sleep medication, consider the potential lingering effects

On some nights, you may need a little extra help to get the sleep you need. In fact, 1 in 25 Americans reaches for a sleep aid at least once a month. It might seem like a good short-term strategy, but it’s not without its risks.

The FDA recognized these issues when they released a warning in 2013 about insomnia drugs containing zolpidem (including well-known names such as Ambien). It was concerned about next-morning impairment, which negatively impact activities that require mental alertness, such as driving.

While the impact of drinking and driving is well understood, the perils of taking sleep meds and driving are lesser known. That’s changing as the body of research grows and there’s more coverage of high-profile cases, including one involving Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy.

She was charged with DUI (driving under the influence) when she crashed her SUV in 2012. Her defense was that she had mistakenly taken a sleeping pill instead of her thyroid medication. Her memory of the accident ended after she left her home and got onto the highway. She was eventually acquitted, but the incident underscored the potentially dangerous side effects of prescription sleep meds.

Women are particularly at risk with sleeping pills and driving because they metabolize medication at a slower rate than men. And they use sleep aids more frequently. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 1 in 3 women take some sort of sleep medication at least a few times a week.

For graphic evidence of what happens when women drive under the influence of sleeping pills, check out the video of Lisa Stark from ABC News behind the wheel using a driving simulator at University of Iowa to show just how dangerous sleep driving can be on a medication like Ambien.

Safety tips for sleep aids 

Despite some of the issues associated with certain sleep aids, they can be helpful, if used with caution:

  1. Stick to short-acting medications that last 3-4 hours. Long-acting and time-release formulas, like Ambian CR or Lunesta, should not be taken more than once a night. Consider over the counter products before looking to prescription-strength drugs.
  1. Avoid alcohol. Along with potential interaction with sleep meds, alcohol decreases effectiveness. Booze is a stimulant, which can last 3-4 hours post-consumption.
  1. Opt for short-term use. If you’ve experienced insomnia for more than a month, consult your doctor. Sleeping pills may help temporarily, but ongoing sleeplessness can be addressed with treatments that offer a longer-term solution.
  1. Stick to the prescribed dosage. If that isn’t working, talk to your doctor or sleep doctor about adjusting your medication.
  1. Be aware of dependency potential. While newer prescription sleep aids are designed to be less addictive than older types like Seconal and Nembutal, there’s still a risk. Over time, the body can develop a tolerance and higher doses may be needed to get the same initial effect.

If your sleep is disrupted randomly because of stress or hormones, it might be time to reassess your nightly bedtime routine.

  • Limit electronics – TV, smartphone, tablet – in bed. If you really need them there, turn them off at least an hour before you plan to sleep.
  • Limit alcohol and caffeine intake before bed. Too much of either and you won’t be sleeping well.
  • Look closely at your bedding. It might be time for a new mattress or different sheets – comfort is key when it comes to restful sleep.
  • Consider lighting and temperature. If you’re too hot or too cold or there’s a streetlight outside your window, your sleep may be suffering.

If you have to take sleeping pills to sleep…

If you’ve decided to use sleep medication to get the sleep you need, talk to your doctor about short-term use of an over-the-counter sleep aid first. Ask him or her to recommend a brand that addresses your unique challenges.

If your sleep problems persist, ask your doctor about prescription sleep medications. Most doctors use medication as a short-term solution for chronic insomnia and encourage simultaneous behavior therapy. Insomnia, if left untreated, can put you at risk for a slew of health problems, such as type-2 diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

Insomnia is a serious problem and you need to be an active participant in the solution. These resources will help you begin your research so you know what to ask your doctor: Sleep Doctor Resources.