DUIs pertain to pain medicines as well

Q: I just had surgery, and I was prescribed some painkillers that say, “Do not drive a motor vehicle or operate machinery.” I’m sure that’s good advice, but is there any law that I’m breaking if I drive after taking my medication?

A: Who do you visualize when I say, “Impaired driver?” If you let your brain respond without a filter, you’re probably imagining a person staggering out of a bar, fumbling with their keys, slurring their words, and all that goes along with too much alcohol. It’s the image we’ve been shown in movies and impaired driving public service announcements, so it’s hard not to default to that.

It’s true that some impaired drivers fit that description, but impairment is only partly drunk drivers. I actually feel a little odd using the term “drunk driver” in the previous sentence, as it’s such an incomplete description of driving under the influence.

The law states that people are guilty of DUI if they drive a vehicle and are “under the influence of or affected by intoxicating liquor, cannabis or any drug.” Just in case anyone is thinking, “Yeah, that’s all good, but they don’t mean prescription medication, right?”, let me put that thought to rest. The next line in the law says, “The fact that a person charged with a violation of this section is or has been entitled to use a drug under the laws of this state shall not constitute a defense…” In plain English, a doctor’s prescription is not an excuse.

It’s easy to moralize about what’s right and wrong. And if you’re a rule follower, it’s also easy to get judgmental when you hear about someone who intentionally disregarded the rules. Put in a less abstract context, when you read in the news about people who get high or drink too much and then totals their car and end up in the hospital, maybe you don’t say it out loud, but you might think to yourself that they got what they deserved.

Yes, actions have consequences. But DUI laws aren’t about whether someone is an addict, or selfish or reckless. We have DUI laws because there are predictable outcomes to impairment. Which is worse: a recreational league soccer player who drank too much celebrating a championship and then seriously injured someone in a crash or his teammate who blew out his knee in the same game, followed the doctor’s dosing instructions for his prescription medication, but didn’t consider how it would affect his driving, and then had the same outcome?

Not to get too philosophical, but when it comes to traffic law, our approach is fairly utilitarian – the right action is the one that produces the most good. Or flipped around, the wrong action is the one that causes harm. Notice that there’s no intent required for DUI. No one plans to get impaired and crash into someone, but that’s a foreseeable result, whatever the impairing substance.

Last year impairment was a factor in 61% of traffic fatalities in Washington. Or in a human context, that’s 412 people who died. And yet, only a small percentage of people drive impaired. This is a big problem with a relatively small number of risk-takers.

Fortunately, we’re getting better at looking out for others when they’re not OK to drive. When in a position to intervene, about 80% of people in Washington have prevented someone from driving impaired. Let’s remember to watch out for each other not only when celebrating your soccer league’s championship, but also when recovering from post-game knee surgery.

Doug Dahl writes The Wise Drive column for this newspaper weekly. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.