Ask a Health Care Professional – Safe Driving

How to Avoid Impaired Driving and Stay Safe on the Road While Driving

By Latha Raja Shankar, chief medical officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Mexico

December is National Impaired Driving Prevention month. It is the most dangerous time of year for impaired driving accidents. As we come together during the holiday season, it’s important to educate ourselves and our loved ones of the risks of driving while impaired. Before the celebration begins, remember to take steps to stay safe.

Alcohol-related impaired driving
Alcohol is the most common cause of impaired driving. Just a single drink can cause visual deterioration, difficulty in mental judgement, and affect fine motor skills and reaction times.

Please encourage family and friends to have a plan before they drink. They might stay overnight at a friend’s place, assign a designated driver, or safely take a taxi or ride-share service home.

Drug-related impaired driving
It’s not just alcohol that can impair a person’s driving ability. Keep in mind that other drugs such as opioid pain medicines, marijuana, and over-the-counter medications with sedative side effects can also lead to impaired driving.

Driving while drowsy
Even physical and mental stress can affect our ability to drive safely. Not getting enough sleep can significantly impair a person’s driving abilities. It’s important to assess how rested and capable you feel before you begin to drive.

Driving while distracted
Electronic devices, phone calls, voice command and entertainment systems, eating, drinking, and even talking to friends can contribute to distracted driving. You can avoid distracted driving by setting a playlist, programming your navigation system in advance of a road trip, and answering texts or email messages either before or after you drive.

Buckle up
In 2021, more than 26,235 vehicle occupants were killed in motor vehicle accidents, and 50 percent of those were not wearing seat belts. Wearing your seat belt is the single most important thing you can do to protect yourself while driving.

Follow the speed limit
In the last two decades, speeding beyond the set speed limits has led to more than one third of motor vehicle crashes. In 2021, speedy driving caused 12,360 deaths. Follow speed limits to protect the safety of everyone on the road.

Unsafe driving in older adults
Sometimes signs of unsafe driving can appear gradually, or a recent change in health may worsen a person’s driving abilities. Even if the individual warning signs seem minor, together they can add up to a substantial risk.

Watch for these red flags in older drivers:

  • Frequent close calls (i.e., almost crashing), dents and scrapes on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, and curbs.
  • Increased citations, traffic tickets, or “warnings” by traffic or law enforcement officers.
  • Trouble with the fundamentals of driving, such as making sudden lane changes, drifting into other lanes, and braking or accelerating suddenly without reason. Other examples include failing to use the turn signal or keeping the signal on without changing lanes.
  • Eyesight problems like not seeing traffic lights and street signs or having to drive closer and closer to them to see them clearly.
  • Hearing problems such as not hearing emergency sirens or horns honking.
  • Problems with memory, including missing exits that used to be second nature or getting lost frequently. While everyone has occasional lapses, if there’s an increasing pattern, it’s time to get evaluated by a doctor.
  • Problems with reflexes and range of motion, such as not reacting quickly enough if there’s a need to brake suddenly; confusing the gas and brake pedals; getting flustered while driving; or being quick to anger when behind the wheel.

This holiday season, keep yourself and your loved ones safe by understanding the risks associated with impaired driving. Discuss the dangers of impaired driving, and share the resources linked below so that your friends and family always make it home safely.

If you have a health question that you would like to be considered in Ask a Health Care Professional, please email [email protected]. BCBSNM will select questions that may appear. Questions will not be personally answered. The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and not necessarily those of BCBSNM. This column is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical care.

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