It’s only to be expected that we may fall ill at some point during the year – particularly during the winter cold and flu season – but when we do, most of us can’t just press pause on life entirely while we recover. Although we’ve become more used to taking a step back from our regular routines, and only leaving the house if essential when ill, as a result of the restrictions imposed during the COVID pandemic, many of us still do need to get to the shops, travel to work or manage childcare as a bare minimum.
However, getting behind the wheel while we’re ill can cause numerous issues – from resulting in crashes that could leave our cars on the scrap heap, all the way to landing us with huge fines. But which symptoms can actually land us in trouble with the law? And should we be more careful when dosing up on medications before heading out on the roads? We’ve looked at the law to help clear up any confusion…
Nearly 1 in 5 drivers are leaving themselves at risk of fines due to driving while suffering with sneezes
Driving while poorly may seem harmless, but the truth of the matter is that it could be much more serious than we may first think. As every driver will likely say, sneezing while behind the wheel is something that’s best avoided – however, if this happens on a dual carriageway or motorway where there are speed limits of 70mph, drivers could end up travelling around 155ft with their eyes closed!
If sneezing is found to be the cause of an accident, drivers can find themselves on the end of a charge for driving without due care and attention, receiving a fine of up to £2,500, and three to nine licence penalty points. So if you’re suffering from a cold, or illnesses such as hay fever that cause you to sneeze more than normal, it’s probably best to avoid getting behind the wheel. Despite this, our survey of more than 1,300 UK drivers, revealed that almost 1 in 5 (19%) have got behind the wheel while suffering from sneezes – leaving them at risk of running into a significant fine if they were to have a crash.
Despite this, sneezes aren’t the most common symptom for people to battle through in order to get behind the wheel – with over a third (34%) admitting to driving with a cough, almost a third (32%) driving while suffering from a sore throat, and 3 in 10 (30%) using their car while struggling with a blocked or runny nose. They may not be considered as dangerous as sneezing while behind the wheel, but runny noses will no doubt prove to be a significant distraction while driving, and driving one handed while using a tissue can also increase the risk of accidents.
If your illness or symptoms affect your driving and are something more long-lasting than just a passing bug, it’s important to inform both the DVLA and your insurer – as failing to do so could result in a fine of up to £1,000.
This is also the case for symptoms such as migraines, which rank in 11th place, and definitely aren’t something to gamble with when behind the wheel. If you find yourself experiencing migraine symptoms while driving, it’s very important to pull over as soon as it is safe to do so, in order to treat your migraine or wait until symptoms subside. Sun glare through the windscreens, or bright lights from other vehicles can make migraines even worse, so don’t assume that it’ll ease off if you continue!
Top 10 symptoms that people admit to driving while suffering from
- Cough – 34 %
- Sore throat – 32%
- Runny/blocked nose – 30%
- Headache – 29%
- Sneezes – 19%
- Muscle or body aches – 17%
- Tiredness/fatigue/exhaustion – 14%
- Stomach cramps – 8%
- High temperature – 7%
- Fever – 6%
Medications that will put you over the limit
It’s not just physical symptoms that you need to be aware of when you’re ill, but also the medications that you may take to try and remedy them. Many medications, such as the antihistamine Piriton, cause side effects such as drowsiness, which could affect your driving and cause you to be breaking the law, so it’s very important that you leave time after taking the medication, to see if you are affected before getting behind the wheel.
There are also a number of medications that can result in you being found over the drug driving limit if you take too high a quantity – including pain medications (morphine, ketamine), anxiety medications (diazepam, lorazepam etc.), ADHD medications such as amphetamines, and nabiximols which are taken to treat multiple sclerosis.
According to our survey, 1 in 10 (9%) drivers say they’ve taken antihistamines while driving, which could put them at an increased risk of having a crash. Antihistamines such as Piriton are likely to make you drowsier, while even medications such as Benadryl, which are commonly taken by those suffering from hay fever and classed as ‘non drowsy’, often have a similar effect.
If you’re taking any of the medications mentioned below, it’s essential to ensure that you’re taking the correct dosage and consult your doctor if you’re unsure. As with illnesses and symptoms, you should also notify your insurer and the DVLA if you’re taking any of these prescriptions, to avoid being hit with a fine.
Top 10 medications drivers are taking while driving
- Paracetamol – 41%
- Ibuprofen – 27%
- Cold & flu medications/decongestants (eg. Lemsip, Sudafed) – 19%
- Antidepressants – 12%
- Antihistamines (eg. Piriton, Piriteze) – 9%
- Morphine, opiate or opioid-based drugs (eg. codeine, tramadol, fentanyl) – 3%
- Benzodiazepines (eg. Clonazepam, diazepam, lorazepam, flunitrazepam, oxazepam) – 2%
- Amphetamine (eg. dexamphetamine or selegiline – often used to treat ADHD) – 2%
- Nabiximols (used to treat multiple sclerosis) -2%
- Natural relaxants (eg. Valerian root, melatonin) – 1%
What To Do If You Feel Ill While Driving
As we’ve uncovered, driving while feeling ill can put you at increased risk of having an accident and landing yourself in trouble with the law, so it’s best to stay at home. However, we know that it’s not always that easy – sometimes symptoms can start while we’re behind the wheel too. With that said, here are some top tips to keep in mind in case you ever find yourself in this situation:
1. Try to pull over as soon as possible – If you suddenly start feeling unwell, try and pull over at the earliest possible point, when safe to do so. If you’re on a motorway, this could be at the next available service station – as hard shoulders are for use by emergency vehicles and broken-down vehicles only. Stopping in the hard shoulder because you feel unwell could see you receive a £100 fine and three points on your licence.
2. Take some time out – Once you’ve stopped, and if it’s safe to do so, step out of the vehicle to get some fresh air, have a drink of water and allow yourself some time to relax. Sometimes driving can be stressful and can result in associated symptoms such as headaches and muscle aches, so in some cases a quick break is all that can be needed to feel well enough to drive again.
3. Cool your car and increase airflow – If you’re not able to pull over, or while you’re manoeuvring to a safe place to do so, wind down your windows to get some fresh air, or turn up the aircon. Cars can become warm without us realising which can in turn, make us feel a bit poorly, so air conditioning and fresh air will help to alleviate this.
4. Keep an emergency kit to hand – If you’re heading on a long journey, ensuring that your car is well stocked may also help you in the event of illness. Keeping a packet of paracetamol or ibuprofen and a bottle of water inside your car is always a good idea – paracetamol and ibuprofen at the correct dose are unlikely to affect your driving but may be able to provide some relief to your symptoms.
We partnered with Censuswide to survey 1,343 UK drivers, asking them whether they’ve driven while ill or suffering from any other physical symptoms, and whether they’ve driven while taking medication (i.e. the medication is active in their system at the time of driving).
Survey conducted in January 2023.