Drivers clueless about dangers of over-the-counter drugs as hayfever season starts

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Brake, the road safety charity

A survey by Brake and Direct Line has found an alarming level of ignorance and complacency about the dangerous effects of many prescription and over-the-counter medications on driving, as one in six (17%) admit either ignoring warnings not to drive or not checking the label at all. The findings come as the pollen count starts to soar at the start of the hayfever season, and hayfever medication is one of the most common drugs that can impair driving.

Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can impair your ability to drive safely, by causing drowsiness or affecting reaction times, coordination, concentration or vision. These include some hayfever medications, painkillers, antibiotics and cough and cold medicines [1].

Brake and Direct Line's survey also found:

  • Almost half (44%) of drivers who use hayfever medication admit sometimes or never checking the instructions to see if it will affect their driving ability.
  • Three in 10 (30%) drivers are unaware some hayfever and allergy medications can impair your ability to drive. Lack of awareness is higher among men (39%) than women (23%). Awareness is even lower for many other medications, including decongestants (47%) and cough medicines (60%). Full results below.

Brake is urging all drivers to always check the label on their medication, and not to drive if it says your driving could be affected – if unsure, consult your doctor or pharmacist, and always err on the side of caution.

It is illegal to drive while unfit to do as a result of taking either legal or illegal drugs. As part of a new drug driving law set to come into force in autumn 2014, the Department for Transport believes roads will be safer by making it easier for the police to tackle those who drive after taking illegal drugs and clarifying the position for those who take medication [2].

Julie Townsend, deputy chief executive, Brake, said: "It's not just illegal drugs that make you unsafe to drive; legal, over-the-counter and prescription drugs can make you a danger too, to yourself and others. This widespread lack of awareness among drivers is alarming, suggesting many are unwittingly posing a threat to safety on our roads. It's a particular concern at this time of year, when huge numbers of people will be using hayfever medicines, some of which can be risky if you drive. All drivers have a responsibility to ensure they are fit to drive when getting behind the wheel, including not drinking alcohol, ensuring their eyesight is up to scratch, and making sure their medication is safe to drive on. If it isn't, you need to stop driving or seek an alternative medication."

Analysing the results further, Rob Miles, director of car insurance at Direct Line, commented: "With one in ten drivers admitting they have driven after taking medication that potentially affects their driving in the past year, it's vital that they don't drive while the medication is having an effect on their vision or reaction times. We're calling on drivers to stay safe and take alternative transport if their doctor or medication instructions advise them not to drive."

A leading expert in this field, Maureen Jenkins, director of clinical services for Allergy UK, advises sufferers to seek out the latest available medications. She said: "second and third-generation antihistamines should always be chosen over the first generation antihistamines, which pass into the central nervous system, causing sedation. Tests and experimental studies on real driving indicate that it is advisable to avoid first generation medications for drivers [3]. If you're in doubt about which is the latest available medication, ask your pharmacist or GP."

Tweet us: @Brakecharity. Read the survey report.

Many prescription and over-the-counter medications can impair your ability to drive safely, for instance by causing drowsiness or affecting reactions times, coordination, concentration or vision. These include some cough and cold medicines, anti-inflammatories, anti-histamines, antibiotics, antidepressants, epilepsy drugs and sleeping pills [4].

A study by the Transport Research Laboratory found that 5.2% of drivers and 4.1% of motorcyclists who die in road crashes had traces of medicinal drugs that could have affected their driving [5].

Among hayfever medications, first-generation anti-histamines are well known to cause drowsiness, and some also impair coordination and reaction times in a similar manner to alcohol. However, second- and third-generation antihistamines have also been found to cause drowsiness in some people [6] [7].

Brake's advice
When taking any medication you should always check the label to see if it could affect your ability to drive. If the label says your driving could be affected, it could make you drowsy, or not to drive if you feel drowsy, then assume you could be impaired and don't drive on it. If you are unsure if your medication could affect driving, consult your doctor or pharmacist. Never drive if the label or a health professional recommends that you don't, or says you could be affected, or if you feel drowsy or slow.

If your medication affects your driving, stop driving, not your medication – make arrangements for alternative transport, or if you need to drive seek an alternative medication.

About the report
These survey results come from Section 3 of Report 2 – Fit to Drive, of the Direct Line and Brake report on safe driving, 2012-14, released today (Wednesday 25 June 2014). The survey consisted of 1,000 drivers and was conducted by Surveygoo. Read the report.

Full results
Q1: In the past 12 months, how often have you driven after taking prescribed or over-the-counter medication which recommends you don't drive?

  • 2% said once a month
  • 1% said once a week
  • 2% said several times a week
  • 1% said every day
  • 2% said once
  • 3% said occasionally
  • 7% said not sure – I don't always check the recommendations
  • 83% said never

Q2: Which of the over-the-counter medications below do you think affect your ability to drive safely?

  • 70% said some hayfever and allergy medications (61% men, 77% women)
  • 47% said some decongestants (41% men, 51% women)
  • 69% said some painkillers (65% men, 71% women)
  • 25% said some diet pills (21% men, 27% women)
  • 60% said some cough medicines (56% men, 63% women)
  • 47% said some travel sickness medications (42% men, 51% women)
  • 19% said some heartburn and indigestion medications (19% men, 20% women)
  • 9% said none of the above (11% men, 7% women)

Q3: If you have used hayfever medication in the last 12 months, have you always checked the instructions to make sure it won't affect your driving?

  • 66% said they haven't used hayfever medication
  • 19% said they always check the instructions – this is 56% of those who use hayfever medication
  • 11% said they usually do, or sometimes don't, check the instructions – this is 32% of those who use hayfever medication
  • 4% said they never check the instructions – this is 12% of those who use hayfever medication

Brake is a national road safety charity that exists to stop the needless deaths and serious injuries that happen on roads every day, make streets and communities safer for everyone, and care for families bereaved and injured in road crashes. Brake promotes road safety awareness, safe and sustainable road use, and effective road safety policies. We do this through national campaigns, community education, a Fleet Safety Forum, practitioner services, and by coordinating the UK's flagship road safety event every November, Road Safety Week. Brake is a national, government-funded provider of support to families and individuals devastated by road death and serious injury, including through a helpline and support packs.

Brake was founded in the UK in 1995, and now has domestic operations in the UK and New Zealand, and works globally to promote action on road safety.

Road crashes are not accidents; they are devastating and preventable events, not chance mishaps. Calling them accidents undermines work to make roads safer, and can cause insult to families whose lives have been torn apart by needless casualties.

Direct Line
Started in 1985, Direct Line became the first UK insurance company to use the telephone as its main channel of communication. It provides motor, home, travel and pet insurance cover direct to customers by phone or on-line.

Direct Line general insurance policies are underwritten by UK Insurance Limited, Registered office: The Wharf, Neville Street, Leeds LS1 4AZ. Registered in England No 1179980. UK Insurance Limited is authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority.

Direct Line and UK Insurance limited are both part of Direct Line Insurance Group plc. Customers can find out more about Direct Line products or get a quote by calling 0845 246 3761 or visiting

End notes
[1] State of the road: medication and driving, Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland, 2011
[2] Public approval for driving limits for 16 drugs, Department for Transport, 2014
[3] Antihistamines in drivers, aircrew and occupations of risk, Basurto University Hospital, 2013
[4] State of the road: medication and driving, Centre for Accident Research and Road Safety – Queensland, 2011
[5] The incidence of drugs and alcohol in road accident fatalities, Transport Research Laboratory, 2000
[6] Antihistamines – side effects, NHS choices, 2013
[7] Antihistamines and driving ability: evidence from on-the-road driving studies during normal traffic, Verster JC & Volkerts ER, 2004

Tags: impairment medication