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Divers warned of triple increase in accident risk

Road deaths linked to tranquillisers

The Guardian October 23, 1998

If people taking tranquillisers did not drive, there would be an estimated 110 fewer road deaths and 1,600 fewer accidents each year.

A study of nearly 20,000 accidents, published in The Lancet medical journal, says there is a clear risk from drivers taking Valium, Librium, Ativan and other commonly prescribed drugs.

The authors, from the University of Dundee, say those taking the drugs should be advised strongly not to drive.

The most dangerous drugs are anxiolytic benzodiazepines, taken during the day to reduce stress and anxiety. A new sleeping tablet, zopiclone, is also hazardous.

Drivers under the age of 45 taking the drugs were almost three times more at risk of causing an accident, and the danger was further increased if the driver had also consumed alcohol.

Most hypnotic benzodiazepines - taken at night to help sleeping - anti-depressants and other psychotropic drugs showed no notable links with road accidents.

The researchers compared 19,386 accident reports in Tayside between 1992 and 1995 with prescription records. One of them, Tom MacDonald, said: "These drugs have always carried the rather vague warning that they may cause drowsiness that may affect skilled tasks such as driving.

"Our study shows that users were at increased risk of road accidents and must be given clear advice not to drive.

"Everyone knows of the effects of alcohol on driving ability. It should now be made clear to patients that they should not drive while taking anxiolytic benzodiazepines or zopiclone.

"If users of these drugs did not drive, we estimate that at least 1,600 accidents, including 110 deaths, would be prevented every year in the UK."

He said the study fitted in with laboratory observations of ability to perform co-ordinated tasks under the influence of benzodiazepines.

William Spence, chief constable of Tayside police, which collaborated with the study, said: "It is now clear that users of certain prescribed drugs have their ability to drive seriously impaired.

"They are putting themselves and other road users at risk."

He said he would lobby to have advice to patients improved.

Writing in The Lancet, Desmond O'Neill, from the Adelaide and Meath Hospital in Dublin, says: "Clinicians who prescribe benzodiazepines need to recognise that most adult patients are drivers or potential drivers."

A Department of Transport spokesman said the research would be carefully considered. But he said advice to GPs given in March had pointed out the effects of tranquillisers on drivers. "Misuse of or dependency on drugs, either legal or illegal, can lead to driving licences being rescinded," the spokesman said.

Doctors were warned earlier this year against widely prescribing anxiolytics.

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