WASHINGTON — Kerry Kennedy was just acquitted, and rightly so, of “drugged driving” — she mistook a sleeping pill for her thyroid medication and conked out at the wheel.
It’s an outrage that she was prosecuted in the first place, but even more of an outrage that steps aren’t being taken to prevent this disturbingly common problem.
Before the Mothers Against Drunk Driving rise up to protest, let me be clear: I’m a mother against drunk driving too. Driving under the influence, of anything, is terrible and dangerous and should be punished to the full extent of the law. But the criminal law exists to punish — and, more important, deter — intentionally bad behavior.
Kennedy, a daughter of Bobby Kennedy, was driving under the influence — in her case, of the generic form of the powerful sleeping pill Ambien — but not deliberately so. The evidence presented at trial convinced the jurors, after a mere hour of deliberation, that Kennedy accidentally messed up. She was about to travel to California with her twin daughters to look at colleges, then on to Europe and Uganda for her human rights work.
She had the sleeping pills on her kitchen counter along with her thyroid medication. The two bottles look the same, and the two pills are of similar shape, size and color. Kennedy gulped down one rather than the other, along with a cappuccino and a handful of carrots, as she raced to the gym. She ended up swerving her Lexus SUV into a tractor-trailer, then was found slumped at the wheel in a left-turn lane.
Mercifully, no one was hurt. (If so, I’d still argue against prosecution; a civil lawsuit by the injured party would be the appropriate remedy.) Westchester County, N.Y., prosecutors — perhaps intrigued by the media that would accompany putting a Kennedy on trial, or perhaps fearful of looking as if they were going light on a celebrity — plowed ahead, charging Kennedy with a misdemeanor that carried up to a one-year prison term. Kennedy may have taken the pill by mistake, they contended, but ought to have known she was impaired and pulled over.
Excuse me, but maybe they should have tried taking this drug before filing criminal charges. Ambien and other sleeping pills are powerful. You take Ambien, and 15 to 30 minutes later, you begin to zonk out. A toxicologist who testified at Kennedy’s trial — for the prosecution, no less — said that someone under the influence of Ambien could fail to recognize that she was having a problem, or even to remember, later, what happened.
I have a particular interest in this issue because I have direct knowledge of two similar instances. In one case, the driver mistook Ambien for an anti-depressant; in the other, for the cholesterol-lowering drug Lipitor. In both cases — I wasn’t the driver — children were in the car and were able to convince the person behind the wheel to pull over. In one case, the child was mine; she called me screaming from the still-moving car that something was wrong. I don’t want to see this happen to anyone.
And it does, with horrifying regularity. Tom Brokaw accidentally took an Ambien and ended up loopy on “Morning Joe.” A Tennessee school bus driver lost her job and pleaded guilty to DUI after rear-ending a truck in a mix-up identical to Kennedy’s. Even scarier: The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that an El Al pilot mistakenly took a sleeping pill instead of his blood pressure medication on a flight from Kiev. (The co-pilot took over.)
Rather than prosecuting, the focus should be on preventing these incidents. Two very simple fixes come to mind: Change the pill and/or change the packaging. Look-alike pills are common, but it can’t be very hard to require that prescription sleep medication be a distinctive color or shape. Not all medications with drowsiness as a side effect, just the ones whose sole purpose is sedation.
Even easier: Pharmacies should put different colored caps — red would work — on bottles containing Ambien and similar medications. This step could be required, or smart pharmacies could do it on their own. After all, the manufacturer of my contact lens cleaner knows enough to put a red top on that bottle so I don’t mistake it for the wetting solution.
This is no grand geopolitical thought, just a small practical suggestion. It’s also one that could save lives.
Ruth Marcus’ email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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