Ambien is often factor in crashes, cops warn
Stephanie Saul the New York Times
Posted March 11, 2006
Some people say they were sleep-driving and have no memory of taking the wheel.
With a tendency to stare zombie-like and run into stationary objects, a new species of impaired motorist is hitting the roads: the Ambien driver.
Ambien, the nation's best-selling prescription sleeping pill, is showing up with regularity as a factor in traffic arrests, sometimes involving drivers who later say they were sleep-driving and have no memory of taking the wheel after taking the drug.
In some state toxicology laboratories, Ambien makes the top-10 list of drugs found in impaired drivers. Wisconsin officials identified Ambien in the bloodstreams of 187 arrested drivers from 1999 to 2004.
And as more people take the drug -- 26.5 million prescriptions in this country last year -- there are signs that Ambien-related driving arrests are on the rise. In Washington state, for example, officials counted 78 impaired-driving arrests in which Ambien was a factor last year, up from 56 in 2004.
Ambien's maker, Sanofi-Aventis, says the drug's record after 13 years of use in this country shows it is safe when taken as directed. But a spokeswoman, Melissa Feltmann, wrote in an e-mail message, "We are aware of reports of people driving while sleepwalking, and those reports have been provided to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as part of our ongoing post-marketing evaluation about the safety of our products."
A spokeswoman for the FDA said the drug's current label warnings, which say the drug should not be used with alcohol and in some cases could cause sleepwalking or hallucinations, were sufficient.
"People should be aware of that," said the spokeswoman, Susan Cruzan.
Though alcohol and other drugs are sometimes also involved in the Ambien traffic cases, the drivers tend to stand out from other under-the-influence motorists. The behavior can include driving in the wrong direction or slamming into light poles or parked vehicles, as well as seeming oblivious to the arresting officers, according to a presentation last month at a meeting of forensic scientists.
"These cases are just extremely bizarre, with extreme impairment," said Laura J. Liddicoat, forensic-toxicology supervisor at a state-run lab in Wisconsin who made that presentation.
Liddicoat's presentation, which reported on six of the cases, was made at a meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, where her counterparts from other parts of the country swapped similar tales.
Several of Liddicoat's cases involved drivers whose blood revealed evidence of Ambien overdoses. In one of them the driver, who was also taking the anti-depressant Celexa, crashed into a parked car, was involved in another near collision and then drove over a curb. When confronted by police, he did not recall any of the recent events, according to the presentation.