Drowsy Driving EpidemicUsing sleeping pills can increase a driver’s risk of a car accident by as much as two to three times, even after the effects of the pills have worn off, according to a new study from the University of Washington School of Pharmacy, as Maggie Fox writes for NBC News. The effect of sleeping pills on drivers can raise the risk of crashes as much as drinking too much, Fox writes.

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, helps to justify warnings from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Fox writes. The FDA in 2013 required pharmaceutical companies to cut the dose of Ambien and similar sleeping medications in half for women (who process them more slowly than men), according to a Jan. 10, 2013 article by the Associated Press appearing on NBCNews.com.

The FDA also recommended the doses be lowered for men as well, but did not make that a requirement, AP wrote. “The agency decided to take action [in 2013] after recent driving simulation studies showed that, in some patients, drug levels remained high enough to cause difficulty driving,” the article said.

Ambien, manufactured by SanofiFor the new study, lead researcher Ryan N. Hansen and his team examined the medical records of more than 400,000 people enrolled in a health plan in Washington state, and selected only adult drivers, Fox writes. They collected data on three popular sleeping pills, Restoril (temazepam), Desyrel (trazodone) and Ambien (zolpidem), writes Steven Reinberg for HealthDay, each one of which works via a different mechanism, Fox notes.

The study found, in studying five years’ worth of records, that drivers who had taken Restoril had a 27% greater risk of having a car crash, drivers who had taken Desyrel/trazodone had a 91% greater risk of traffic accidents, and those who had taken Ambient had the highest risk, and were more than twice as likely as people who do not use sleeping pills to have a car crash, Fox reports. She adds that the risk estimates found in the study are the equivalent of blood alcohol concentrations (BAC) between 0.06% and 0.11%, and notes that in all U.S. states, the legal limit for driving is a 0.08% BAC.

Reinberg quotes a sleep medicine specialist:

‘This finding is shockingly not shocking. Sleeping pills are a huge problem,’ said Dr. Christopher Winter, a spokesman for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

‘This study screams that many doctors do not know how to treat sleep patients,’ he said. ‘You have to develop a plan to deal with their sleep, not merely sedate them.’

Michael Grandner, an instructor in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania who was not involved in the study, told HealthDay’s Reinberg that “[t]he recommended first-line treatment for insomnia is not medication, but cognitive behavioral therapy.” Cognitive behavioral therapy, which involves talk therapy, is effective and much safer than many prescription sleeping medications, Grandner said.

Lead researcher Hansen said he hopes people who take these sleeping medications will speak to their doctors and pharmacists to have a better understanding of the risks involved in taking them, Fox writes. Hansen said the risk they are taking is not just to themselves: “It’s also a risk to each and every one of us that’s out on the road with people who are taking the medications.”

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