With pharmaceutical revenues in excess of $300 billion, the United States remains a global leader in the drug industry. Specialty products like sleep aids Ambien, Halcion, Sonata, Rozerem and Lunestra have given consumers the means to combat insomnia. However, these drugs have also given law enforcement another class of impaired drivers to consider. The phenomenon, commonly referred to as sleep driving, is a form of drugged-driving that is as much a public health threat as other forms of impaired driving.
What is Sleep Driving?
According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), sleep driving results when a driver-not fully awake-operates a motor vehicle after ingesting a sedative-hypnotic product and subsequently has no memory of the event.
Sleep driving-considered an extension of sleep walking-is becoming increasingly more common. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in its 2007 National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use report, nearly 16 percent of nighttime weekend drivers tested positive for prescription, illegal or over-the-counter medicines.
While the need for treating medical conditions is important, the need to protect the public is a competing interest.
Driving under the Influence of Sleep Aids in California
Some states, including California, enforce their impaired driving laws in a way that creates criminal penalties for those who sleep drive.
California Vehicle Code 23152(a) prohibits driving under the influence of a drug-any drug. The prohibition does not differentiate legal from illegal drugs. This was apparent when authorities arrested one of their own (a decorated Bakersfield officer) in the fall of 2010. The officer was using a prescribed sleep medication, Ambien, and charged with misdemeanor hit and run while under the influence of the sleep aid.
Sleep Driving Versus Sleep-Deprived Driving
Sleep driving is not the same as sleep-deprived driving. The former is involuntary intoxication coupled with the act or intention of driving. It relates to medication active in one's system while operating a vehicle. The latter relates chiefly to driving while impaired by natural fatigue.
By the end of 2011, experts estimate that pharmaceutical sales in the United States will reach approximately $330 billion. With the increased consumer use of medicinal drugs to help with insomnia, law enforcement will continue to consider the public health as well as the public safety issues caused by impaired drivers who operate their vehicles under the influence of prescribed sleep aids.