Depression Meds May Be Prescription for Bad Driving

A new study dubbed “The Effects of Antidepressants on Cognitive and Driving Performance,” by Holly J. Dannewitz, Ph.D., and Thomas Petros, Ph.D., psychologists at the University of North Dakota, measured the driving skills of 60 people; 29 who were not medicated (other than contraceptives in some cases) and 31 who were taking at least one type of antidepressant. The group taking antidepressants was further divided into those who scored higher or lower on a test of depression. The researchers observed the participants’ steering, concentration, and scanning abilities as they made a series of common driving decisions, such as reacting to brake lights, stop signs or traffic signals while being distracted by animals, other cars, pylons, speed limit signs, helicopters or bicyclists. 

The group that was both depressed (scoring high on the depression test) and taking antidepressants performed far worse than the control group on several tasks. They were found to lack concentration, as well as the overall ability to control the car. But participants who were taking antidepressants and were not depressed (scoring in the normal range on the test) performed about the same as those who were not medicated. The team believes it could be either the medication itself or the condition that caused the problems. “We already know that depression causes concentration problems,” said study author Holly J. Dannewitz, according to HealthDay News. “And now it appears that people taking antidepressants who also have relatively higher depression scores fare significantly worse when attempting to perform a computerized simulation of driving.”

This research is significant considering that the number of Americans taking antidepressants has tripled over the past decade. According to government statistics, 1 in 10 women currently takes some form of antidepressant medication. Dr. Dannewitz said that while there needs to be a larger study on the issue, “there certainly seems to be some sort of link” between depression, antidepressants and driving. “I think people who are depressed, especially those on antidepressants, should be aware of this if they are driving or doing anything that relies on concentration and reaction skills,” Dr. Dannewitz said. 

The study findings were presented at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association in Boston on August 17.