Over The Counter DUI Poses Threat

CHICAGO, Illinois – USA Today estimates 600 people a year die in car accidents after taking over-the-counter antihistamines. Two years ago, the driver of a Greyhound bus took Benadryl for a sinus problem, apparently fell asleep at the wheel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and crashed, killing seven people.

Last year in New Orleans, antihistamines were found in the blood of another bus driver involved in a crash which killed 22 people.

In a driving simulator at the University of Iowa, researchers studied the effects of allergy medicines and driving. They observed some shocking behavior.

Drivers in the simulator who took an over-the-counter antihistamine had trouble avoiding accidents and staying in their lanes. The antihistamine they took, called diphenhydramine, is commonly known by the trade name Benadryl.

“What we found was the performance after taking diphyenhydramine was worse than after taking alcohol,” said researcher Dr. John Weiler, who led the University of Iowa study.


That may sound surprising. Drivers in the simulator were more impaired after taking Benadryl than when they were legally drunk.

The car in the simulator is real. Its parts, including the engine, tires, and steering wheel, have been replaced by computers. Measurements were taken at least 60 times a second to determine the subject’s impairment.

NBC 5 photographer Sylvio Costales took Benadryl, then drove the simulator. His actions were registered on four computer monitors.

“When all of a sudden I saw a truck pull out in front of me I didn’t react fast enough,” he said. “After going through the simulator, I’ll never take Benadryl and drive again.”

Twila Finkelstein, the nurse who rode along with him, said his driving was obviously impaired.

“His actions and reactions were slow, I thought,” she said.


Warner-Lambert, the makers of Benadryl, disagree with the results of the driving study, saying there ae numerous flaws and biases in the research.

Furthermore, they claim labels on their product advice consumers to use caution when operating a motor vehicle.

But the National Transportation Safety Board says labels on sedating antihistamines like Benadryl are not enough. It is now asking the FDA to come up with clearer, more consistent and easily recognizable warning labels.

The NTSB also believes there should be a list of medications that are approved for use when driving.

Dr. Weiler said the number of accidents believed to have been caused by antihistamines speak for themselves.

“Those are numbers that ought to make people think very hard about the seriousness of the problem of driving while impaired by various medications,” he said.

Researchers say drowsiness is not the only sign of impairment. In other words, if you don’t get drowsy on Benadryl, you may still be impaired and not even know it.


State police say they are watching for over-the-counter medication D.U.I. offenders. They say it doesn’t matter what drivers are impaired by, we don’t care.

Driving under the influence, its not just alcohol, it can be drugs too, illegal and legal, prescription and over-the-counter.

In a driving simulator one woman almost crashed as a result of being under the influence of an over-the-counter antihistamine called diphenhydramine and commonly called by the trade name “Benadryl.”

Researchers at the University of Iowa found drivers who took Benadryl were more impaired than drivers who were legally drunk.

Dr. John Weiler of the university stated that “a large number of the over-the-counter remedies will include diphenhydramine and it is the most common antihistamine available in the United States.”

There are warning labels on these medications stating that they can make you drowsy but they are warning labels that are not always taken seriously.

Sargent Tony Lebron. a member of the Illinois State Police department says offenders offen admit to have taken over-the-counter medications, thinking that there is no harm in taking these types of medications. But he and many trained officers no better. He is one of 18 officers in the state specially trained as drug recognition experts. He also recommends if you plan to take one of these drugs it is better not to drive.

When he spots a driver, he can pull out a stethoscope, blood pressure cup, and pupil dilation card to help determine which drugs may be causing impairment. He once arrested a woman after she drove over a bolder, then backed over it again. Lebron says she had symptoms of a central nervous system depressant and it was confirmed to be Benadryl through a toxicology test.

In Illinois as in most states, you can be arrested for D.U.I. if you’re driving under the influence of any substance. That can include over-the-counter antihistamines. The charge is just the same as if you’re caught driving drunk. If caught while driving under the influence of any substance state officials say drivers will be charged, arrested and hopefully convicted.

By far alcohol arrests out number drug D.U.I.’s. In 1998 there were 24,000 D.U.I. alcohol conviction and only 255 drug convictions. But it’s difficult to say exactly how many traffic accidents are medicine related. Only aviation accidents are routinely investigated with toxicology tests.

Recently the N.T.S.B. ruled a bus accident was caused in part by the use of Benadryl. The driver apparently fell asleep at the wheel. He died in the crash along with six passengers.

Marti Belluschi who heads Illinois’ D.U.I. awareness program says more may need to be done to make motorists aware of how risky it can be taking over-the-counter medications before getting behind the wheel. She says “alcohol is in fact the most serious problem on our roadways, on the other hand your (NBC-5’s) information and the recent studies about over-the-counter drugs have highlighted to Secretary White that this is a problem we need to look into more seriously.”

The Secretary of State’s office says it may launch new public awareness campaigns to alert drivers to the danger of taking over-the-counter medications before getting behind the wheel.

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