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Should California Regulate Drivers’ Use of Sedative-Hypnotics Like Ambien?


In June of 2012, Commerce Secretary John Bryson was involved in two car accidents in Los Angeles, California. Bryson tested positive for having Ambien in his blood but will face no criminal charges, in part because there is no clear standard for determining when someone is too impaired by the drug to be driving.

“Such accidents have elicited proposals to create laws that better address the use of sedative-hypnotics like Ambien among the driving population,” explained California personal injury lawyer James Ballidis.

Ambien is a sleep medication that has been associated with sleepwalking, sleep eating, sleep shoplifting and sleep driving. Because Ambien causes significant impairment in functionality at the time of use, the drug carries a warning not to drive after taking it.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the amount of Ambien in the commerce secretary’s blood tests was in the low end of the therapeutic levels, and quotes a former prosecutor who stated that it is possible for trace amounts of the drug to stay in the blood for days after use without having an intoxicating or impairing effect.

Because it is impossible to determine if the Ambien in the secretary’s bloodstream was a factor in the accident and because there are no clear standards for acceptable levels of these medications in the blood while driving, the District Attorney declined to press criminal charges against Bryson for the hit and run accidents.

In California, drivers are forbidden from getting behind the wheel when impaired by either alcohol or drugs. For alcohol, there is a clear standard established in section 23152(b) of the Vehicle Code, which establishes a rule that if a driver has a blood alcohol content above .08, that driver is considered too intoxicated to be driving and can be presumed to be guilty of a DUI simply by virtue of being above the legal limit.

When an arrest is made for driving while under the influence of drugs such as Ambien the rules are different. There is no maximum acceptable level of drugs in the blood stream. Instead, a variety of factors are considered in determining whether the driver is too impaired: the driver’s sensitivity to the drug, whether the driver was obviously affected or impaired at the time of the crash, and how much of the medication is found in the blood stream. Many of these tests, including an assessment of the driver’s sensitivity to the drug and the level of impairment, are subjective standards.

Proposed Changes

Some safety advocates suggest that states, including California, pass laws imposing a criminal threshold for appropriate levels of Ambien in the blood stream. This could make it easier for prosecutors to bring criminal charges against those who are impaired by Ambien when behind the wheel.

One challenge associated with passing such a law is that unlike alcohol, drugs such as Ambien can stay in the system for a long time after their use. Ambien, for example, has a two-hour half-life, so only half of the drug is metabolized and does not continue to appear in blood tests. There is no clear answer to how long it takes for the drug to leave the system entirely, so it would be difficult to determine whether a driver had taken Ambien recently when involved in an accident. Since impaired driving laws punish only those individuals who are impaired at the time of driving, a sleep driving law would be difficult to pass because those who had taken Ambien days or even weeks earlier might still show signs of the drugs in their blood.

While passing a law may present legal challenges, the recent press surrounding the John Bryson accidents highlights the need to do something to minimize the risk of sleep driving and related accidents.

Additional information on California traffic safety laws is available to the public free of charge through our office’s Preferred Friends and Clients Program.

If you would like to request one of these free resources, or to speak with a California personal injury lawyer, feel free to call 866-981-5596.

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