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Is Driving With a Cold as Dangerous as Driving Drunk?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Flu season is upon us, which means quite a few folks will be driving while sniffling, either hopped up on decongestants or hoping they don't have to sneeze while rolling up to a stop sign. (And just so you know, yes, you can get a DUI for driving while on cold medicine.)

But that's not the half of it -- two recent studies found that driving with a cold could be as dangerous as drunk driving. So is getting behind the wheel with the sniffles really as bad as driving after a snifter or two?

DWI: Driving While Ill

One study, conducted by the oddly-named British insurance company Young Marmalade, found that being sick diminished a driver's skill by about 50 percent, and ill drivers were more likely to suffer from reduced reaction times and major losses of concentration while behind the wheel. In fact, researchers compared cold-impaired drivers to those who were driving after "four double whiskeys."

"Everyone knows that when they have a fever and flu symptoms they are not at their best physically or mentally," Dr. Christopher Ohl, associate professor of medicine at Wake Forest University, told ABC. "Those with illness with high fever should be staying home for a lot of reasons, including getting needed rest and protecting others from illness. Perhaps we should add safe driving to that list." Given the prevalence of the flu, colds, and other winter ailments, along with Americans' propensity for driving, it's estimated that one million Americans could be driving with a cold on any given day.

DUI: Driving Under Illness

Another British study found cold-stricken drivers had slower reaction times than those who had quaffed four pints of beer. "Colds slowed reaction times by 36 milliseconds," said Professor Andy Smith, of Cardiff University. "Yet consuming the amount of alcohol that would lead to a driving ban slows reactions by just 15 milliseconds." A simple sneeze could take a driver's eyes of the road for up to three seconds, meaning a simple case of the sniffles could have you missing street signs and traffic hazards.

Along with simple physical effects, studies have also suggested that fighting off infection could cause changes in the levels of key chemicals in the brain, leading to changes in mood, memory, and movement, all of which could affect or driving ability.

So if you feel a cold coming on, maybe stay off the roads.

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