Caring Currents

Over-The-Counter Driving Hazards

Last updated: Jul 17, 2008


If there's a senior driver in your family, it’s important to remember that even non-prescription medications can have powerful side effects.

I was reminded of this recently when I interviewed Laura Juel, an occupational therapist at the Duke Driving Program in Durham, North Carolina. Juel evaluates the driving skills of elderly people, and educates them on changes in their physical, thinking, and visual skills and recommends ways to compensate for these deficits to keep them safe on the road. In some cases, she has to tell an older person that it's time to give up driving for good.

Juel’s oldest client yet, a 98-year-old, came in for a driving assessment after he had two traffic accidents in a single week. Juel gave him a variety of driving tests, and found no significant problems: "He was sharp as a tack,” she says.

It turned out that the man had had a cold and was taking over-the-counter cold medication, and that the medication slowed his reaction time, resulting in the accidents. When he wasn’t taking the medication, his driving was fine. “He vowed that he wouldn’t drive when he had a cold or was taking cold medication, and we sent him on his way,” Juel says.

There are several morals to this story. The first is that age alone should never be the determining factor in the driving decision. The second is that even nonprescription medication can have powerful effects, particularly for the elderly, whose metabolisms change with age, and who are also likely to be taking other medications. Says Juel, “People think cold and cough medicines are safe, but these medications can significantly impair thinking skills and reaction times.”

When a routine dose of cold medicine can turn a safe driver into a hazard, its unnerving to consider what it will be like as more and more seniors remain on the roads in the years to come.  For those on the front lines,  like Laura Juel, the problem of how to strike a balance between individual independence and public safety will become increasingly urgent.

"I know it's a terrible blow to an elderly person when he loses his license,"  she says.. "But It isn’t just the senior driver’s safety we have to worry about. This hit home for me when I was evaluating a gentleman who lives in my neighborhood. He assured me that he avoids the busy intersections, and only drives on back streets. But my children play on those back streets!”

Image by Flickr user ktspix, under the Creative Commons licensing agreement.