There have been renewed calls on the Department of Health to implement long-awaited laws on prescription drugs after a report showed they were involved in 30% of road fatalities.
Laws clamping down on the trade in prescription medicines — first drawn up in 2013 — were eventually passed in the Oireachtas last July, but the provisions have not yet been commenced.
A report carried out for the Road Safety Authority (RSA), first accessed by RTÉ under the Freedom of Information Act, found that prescription medication was implicated in 30% of 109 fatal road traffic accidents examined in 2013.
The report, conducted by the Health Research Board, said that an initial observation would indicate that “prescription medication appear to be over-represented in RTC fatalities”.
Anti-anxiety medication, known as benzodiazepines, are the most common prescription drugs found, featuring in 12% of all fatalities, the same as cannabis, and behind alcohol at 31%.
The report, which the RSA published yesterday, does not state that the prescription medication had impaired driving or caused the fatal accidents.
But the widespread presence of prescription drugs has renewed calls for action.
“There is a general trend of more benzos being taken,” said Joe Barry, public health specialist at Trinity College Dublin.
“Benzos are popping up everywhere,” he said. “They are appearing in lots of different data sets and this is just the latest. A lot are being sold on the street and treatment clinics are seeing it.
“My own view is that too many benzos are being prescribed. There are guidelines for doctors for prescribing them, but they’re only guidelines — they don’t have the force of law.”
Prof Barry said he had “lost track” of the long-promised legislation.
“The department needs to come out and say where things are at,” he said.
Last September, drugs strategy minister Catherine Byrne said the act would be commenced when associated regulations were ready.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health yesterday said: “Further work has been undertaken on the regulations and they are at an advanced stage. It is hoped to finalise this piece of work very shortly.”
Denis Cusack of the Medical Bureau of Road Safety said that people taking prescription medication and “sticking” to the prescription are “healthier, safer and better drivers”.
However, Prof Cusack added: “It’s when people get so-called prescription drugs on the black market or borrow from friends or take more than their prescribed that’s when the danger arises and that’s going to give rise to potential for impaired driving, crashes, collisions, deaths and injuries.”
The Irish Pharmacy Union (IPU) described the report as “very disturbing”.
IPU spokeswoman Catriona O’Riordan said: “Many medications carry warnings to be aware of the dangers of drowsiness or other side effects, and those warnings are there for a reason. It’s vitally important that before driving people should ask their pharmacist if there is any possibility that the medicine may impact on their ability to drive safely.”
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