The most common interpretation of driving under the influence (DUI) involves alcohol consumption, but drunk driving is not the only type of DUI. Using drugs that impair your ability to drive safely also qualifies as driving under the influence. In 2020, 44.6% of car accident fatalities in California involved at least one driver who was driving under the influence. This number includes both alcohol and drug-related crashes.

Car accidents caused by prescription drugs can also be considered DUI crashes because California law does not exclude legal drugs and medicines. So how exactly does the state define driving under the influence, and how might that affect prescription and over-the-counter medicine use?

California DUI Laws

In California, it is illegal to operate a vehicle while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. This is a relatively straightforward regulation, yet there are complexities within state laws that make DUI charges slightly more complicated than they seem at first glance. Technically, California Vehicle Code 23152(f) states that “it is unlawful for a person who is under the influence of any drug to drive a vehicle.”

In many scenarios, a first-time offense is categorized as a misdemeanor and can lead to penalties such as license suspension for six months, three years of probation, and various fines and monetary penalties. However, repeat offenders and those involved in accidents that injured someone else will receive harsher penalties and could even be charged with a felony.

California classifies drugs in the context of DUIs as any substance, except alcohol, that affects a person to the extent that their ability to drive is impaired compared to an ordinarily cautious person using reasonable care. Driving while under the influence of legal drugs, prescription medicines, or over-the-counter medication could lead to a DUI charge.

Driving under the influence of drugs does not work the exact same way as driving under the influence of alcohol. That’s because there is no set legal limit for drug use or consumption. When someone is suspected of drinking and driving, their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can be tested to determine if they are legally intoxicated. For most drivers, 0.08% is the legal limit in California. However, when drug use is the culprit behind an accident or dangerous driving, there is no number to test for because there is no consensus on what concentration of drugs leads to impairment.

Instead, California states that anyone driving under the influence of drugs, under the combined influence of drugs and alcohol, or while addicted to any drug can be charged with DUI. It should be noted that the state does make an exception to the addiction element of this law for people undergoing treatment through an approved program.

How Can Prescription Drugs Affect Your Driving?

Driving is a complex, multi-sensory task that requires all of your attention and focus. To safely drive, motorists need to have:

  • Sufficient strength to apply the brake and turn the steering wheel
  • Moderate flexibility to turn their head from side-to-side
  • Appropriate stamina to stay alert and awake for the entire drive
  • Clear vision to see the road ahead and potential hazards
  • Sharp cognition to anticipate changes and react to dangers

Many prescription drugs cause blurred vision, dizziness, nausea, and sleepiness, any of which could impact the ability to drive. Any driver taking any medication should perform due diligence prior to getting behind the wheel. Check your medicines for side effects and ensure they do not negatively affect you prior to driving.

What Types of Medications May Cause a Driver to be Impaired?

It would be impossible to list every medication that could potentially affect someone’s ability to operate a motor vehicle. There are simply too many medicines and too large a variety of reactions to those medicines. As a general guideline, any medication, prescription or over-the-counter, that affects your muscles, cognition, alertness, or nervous system can impair your driving and lead to a dangerous driving situation.

Many allergy medicines cause extreme drowsiness, which can impair your ability to drive safely. Cold and flu medicines can also have the same effect. Further, over-the-counter medicines frequently cause dizziness, nausea, trembling, and other potentially harmful side effects.

Prescription pain medications involve an even broader list of possible complications and side effects than over-the-counter drugs. Antidepressants, opioids, sedatives, statins, and countless other prescription drugs can cause side effects that impair driving.

Can you drive while taking muscle relaxers, opioids, or other prescription medicine? It’s always a good idea to err on the side of caution when people’s lives are at stake. A car accident caused by prescription drugs is a DUI in California.

If you are taking a newly prescribed medication, have received a change in dosage, or if something else has changed the way your medicine may interact with your body, you should think twice about getting behind the wheel. You should give yourself time to see how the change will affect your strength, flexibility, vision, or mind. You may also want to wait to ensure that you will not experience any other side effects like nausea or shakiness.

After a car accident caused by prescription drug use, you will likely have many questions about what to expect and whether criminal charges can be filed. The Accident Network Law Group provides free consultations at our Riverside and Costa Mesa offices. You can schedule your appointment by calling (714) 844-1010 in Costa Mesa or (951) 554-1010 in Riverside.