Prescription Sleep Medications Raise Serious Issues for Drivers

By Saul H. Segan, Esquire

Sometimes the valiant efforts to assure oneself a good night’s sleep leads to drastic measures, which in turn, lead to perilous consequences. Sleep-promoting substances are sought and more often than not backfire on the unwary user, particularly in driving activities. Ambien is most prominent in this category, and many who have sought its help in an effort to combat insomnia ended up with drunk driving citations, amnesia, narcoleptic behavior, and serious injuries to themselves or others.

Although some successful defenses of these charges exist, they are few and far between, and are nothing short of an ordeal. The courts are reluctant to relieve the accused of their legal burdens despite the complete innocence of their motives and the unconscious contribution to one’s own risk of criminal behavior or intoxication. People have been killed by drivers who have taken these menaces. And the offenders did not remember anything.

Ambien (zolpidem) helps one fall asleep faster and is supposed to promote a better night’s rest, but patients may be deprived of adequate REM (rapid eye movement) associated with dreams. Zolpidem belongs to a class of drugs called hypnotics (a drug designed to put you to sleep, rather than just lower anxiety/sedate you), which act on the brain to produce a soporific effect. Those who use it are cautioned to not take it unless there is time for at least seven to eight hours of sleep.

This medication, like all sleeping medication, is usually approved by the FDA for limited treatment periods of one to two weeks or less, but it is often taken for weeks, months, or years. If the user awakens mid-sleep, and in some patients, especially women, before that, there can be memory loss and a problem with any activity that requires alertness, such as driving or operating machinery. Complications involving sleep aids are sending more people to the ER. Is it worth it?
Ambien produces a type of amnesia whereby you can forget things that happened after you took the drug. You can be sleep-driving and not know it. The FDA’s definition is “driving when you are not fully awake.” Imagine combining this intake with alcohol ingestion.

We need to call on our government on this issue as well. What is the FDA doing to prevent the wider spread use of such chemicals or to make its hazards more widely known? How about adequate testing of these products? We do not need more sleepy or impaired drivers on the road, nor do we need law abiding citizens exposed to criminal liability or innocent bystanders exposed to risk of harm because of these unwieldy and avoidable hazards, inadvertent as they are (meaning the driver had no intent to cause the accidents).

And to those who experience undue levels of stress and cannot find ways to relax, I would suggest seeking modalities that bring about the desired ends naturally. I am a big advocate of meditation, yoga, massage therapy, and my absolute favorite, reiki.

OK, but what to do about the legal issues encountered by the unexpected consequences of these medications? Find a creative and knowledgeable lawyer who has experience defending these cases. Someone who knows his/her way around the courtroom. A lawyer who has access to experienced toxicologists, psychiatrists and psychologists who can testify about the undesirable properties of all sleeping pills, including Ambien.

Lives have been ruined by the unintentional commission of an offense. Those convicted of vehicular homicide have gone to prison, despite totally unforeseeable and non-willful perpetration of these infractions. Prosecutors must, in the interest of justice, study the issues involved and become aware of the inability of the average citizenry to be cognizant of these dangers of totally unintentional or uncontrollable behavior.

Instead of prosecuting victims of involuntary intoxication by Ambien, they should conduct a public service campaign to inform and warn the public about the risks of sleep-driving while on any impairing drugs, and the resulting condition (often referred to as “zombieism” by the media). I would hope there would be cooperation in disseminating this information. Legislators on a state and federal level must act quickly and aggressively to enact controls on the distribution and classification of these types of medications. But until that happens, I strongly urge readers not to take the chances of using these drugs.


Saul Segan has been a practicing lawyer in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 38 years. He is also a seasoned broadcaster having spent much of his life in radio and television as a newscaster, legal analyst, program director, and talk show host.

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One Response to “Prescription Sleep Medications Raise Serious Issues for Drivers”

  1. Ken in NH says:

    It sounds like you are asking for a blanket amnesty for people who drive under the influence of sleep aids. If so, I have to disagree with you.

    Those who take a sleep aid, but do not go to bed and instead decide to continue as if they did not take the medication (such as in the linked news report) should be prosecuted. People who drink alcohol and take the medication should be prosecuted. People who take it for more than the recommended or prescribed time should be prosecuted. Those who take a larger dose than prescribed or recommended should be prosecuted. All of these people are misusing the drug and they were certainly cognizant that ignoring the restrictions (dosage, abstaining from alcohol, admonishments to go to bed for 8 hours, taking the drug for longer periods than is recommended) could cause erratic and dangerous behavior.

    If you find me a person who killed or maimed (or otherwise damaged property) while taking a sleep aid at the recommended dosage, in the recommended setting, for no longer than the safe length of time, and without other intoxicants I would consider their exoneration.