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Sleeping aids may create unsafe morning drivers, officials say

Sleeping Aids

On an early July morning, the wife of New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo was driving on Interstate 684 when she crashed her car into a tractor-trailer. After swerving into the truck, Mrs. Kennedy kept driving and exited the highway.

The New York Times reports that New Castle police officer Joel Thomas found Mrs. Kennedy dazed in her damaged Lexus. Officer Thomas said that Mrs. Kennedy had impaired speech. She complained of being dizzy and had no memory of the crash.

Speculation immediately began that the governor’s wife was intoxicated behind the wheel. Mrs. Kennedy told authorities that she occasionally takes Ambien to sleep, and that was the only type of drug in her system according toxicology reports.

It turns out that millions of Americans take sleep aids like Ambien every evening. These dangerous pharmaceuticals have many potential side effects including sleepwalking, short-term amnesia and drowsy driving. Drowsy driving linked to sleeping medication can lead to serious car accidents and death, which has health officials worried.

New evidence suggests that medication-induced drowsy driving is an even bigger problem than previously thought. Doctors wrote more than 60 million sleep aid prescriptions last year and a government study from 2007 found that nearly 5 percent of daytime drivers have pharmaceuticals in their system.

These statistics have begun to worry some federal officials because there is evidence that common sleep aids like Ambien can impact drivers well into the day. Authorities are unsure whether individuals who take Ambien at night can drive safely the next morning. It appears that Mrs. Kennedy’s situation is not unique and there may be unsafe Ambien-affected drivers during everyone’s morning commute.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been particularly active in regulating sleep aids. Last month it declined to approve a new sleep aid made by Merck because tests indicated that some consumers couldn’t drive safely the next morning. In January the FDA halved the female dosage of zolpidem (generic Ambien) because of similar concerns.

FDA officials are now looking at all insomnia medications and asking manufacturers to conduct more rigorous driving tests for all new sleeping aids.

“It would be so convenient and it would be so good if you could just tell people, don’t drive unless you feel O.K.,” one FDA researcher said. “I think this has penetrated now that this is not adequate. It is still good advice that, if you feel impaired, don’t drive. But if you feel fine, you might be impaired.”

Source: New York Times, “To Judge Sleep Aids, U.S. looks at Drowsy Driving in the Morning,” Katie Thomas, Aug. 13, 2013.