ATHENS, Ohio -- This, year doctors will prescribe sleeping aids to 60 million Americans. Ambien and its generic form Zolpidem are among the most commonly prescribed.
Fast-acting and potent, it can stay in your system for up to 12 hours. Most side effects are minor. But a less common side effect, known as "complex sleep related behaviors," is cause for concern.
"That's the sleep-driving, the eating without awareness and the sleep walking," says Dr. Jessica Vensal Rundo, of the Cleveland Clinic Sleep Disorders Center.
Sleep-driving made it into national news this summer when Kerry Kennedy, daughter of the late Robert F. Kennedy, sideswiped a truck and was found slumped over her car's steering wheel by a police officer.
"I remember getting on the highway and then I have no memory until I was stopped at a traffic light and there was a police officer at my car door," Kennedy told reporters, after a court appearance.
Toxicology reports show she had Ambien in her system.
Ambien was also in the system of her cousin, former Congressman Patrick Kennedy, when he crashed his car into a concrete barrier back in 2006. In both those cases no one was hurt, but that is not always the case.
In May of this year, a Texas woman got probation for driving her car into two young sisters and their mother. One of the girls suffered severe brain damage. The driver had mixed Ambien and alcohol, but had no memory at all of getting into her car and driving.
That same month, a Southern Illinois man took four Ambien just 12 hours before he drove into a highway construction crew, killing one man and injuring three others.
The drug's directions are clear: go to bed for at least 7 to 8 hours and do not drive until fully awake. Sleep driving is one of the possible side effects.
Ambien is designed to act quickly and it does. "It's actually just as bad as drinking and driving," says Dr. Deborah McAvoy, Director of the Driving Simulation Lab at Ohio University.
Dr. McAvoy and a team of researchers are using a driving simulator to study and help improve road safety.
"This information is valuable, simply because we are trying to reduce crashes and improve safety," Dr. McAvoy explained.
We traveled to Ohio University recently where Dr. McAvoy and a team of graduate research assistants created a program to test the driving skills of someone under the influence of Ambien.
"I have never taken Ambien before, but I volunteered to be that "someone," WKYC's Monica Robins said.
"Explaining the story to my doctor, he wrote me a prescription for Ambien. Each pill was 10 mg. To make sure I didn't have an adverse reaction, four days prior to my trip to Athens, I took approximately ¼ of a pill, or 2.5 mg. I took it at night, before bed and slept 6 hours uninterrupted."
"When our crew arrived in Athens the morning of the test, Dr. McAvoy and her research assistants led me through several trials to get accustomed to the Ford Focus simulator before I took my pill. Cameras were focused on my eyes to track my eye moment. A computer would record my speed and how well I stayed in my lane."
"I did well on my test trial, and adjusted to the car's brakes and steering. After completing my test run, I underwent a field sobriety test, and easily passed. After some careful consideration and discussion with my crew, I decided to take just 5 mg. of the Ambien, or ½ the prescribed pill."
"Within a few minutes, I could already feel it working. As part of our plan, I laid down for about 10 minutes with the lights out. Fifteen minutes after taking the Ambien, I was up trying the field sobriety test again. I did well, but felt dizzy throughout."
"I climbed back in the simulator and began driving again. Towards the end of my test, I caught myself crossing the road's center line. My first post-Ambien test complete, I went back to sleep. We wanted to run the same test again after the Ambien was in my system for a total of 60 minutes."
"My crew woke me after my second 'nap,' and I was clearly disoriented. I had trouble walking from my cot to the hallway where we performed the third field sobriety test. I wobbled badly while trying to walk a straight line. And while performing a simple finger-counting exercise, I had no idea I was whispering while talking."
"Back in the simulator, I don't realize I'm speeding until the simulator's computer voice tells me, not once, but twice to 'slow down.' Our third test took place with the Ambien in my system for 2 ½ hours."
"I must steady myself on the wall, as I try to walk the center line. And I struggle with counting. When asked by my producer, I say I cannot imagine driving a car in my current state. Once in the car, I'm yawning and fighting to stay awake. The driving scenario takes me down a dark highway and into the streets of a city. I fight sleep while stopped at a red light. And while waiting for a car ahead of me to turn left, I impatiently swerve around it, narrowly missing its rear fender."
"The first part of my final test is now over and I wait for my results. Overall, I think I did very well. Nick Brady, the OU Graduate Research Assistant who led me through the test, has the sobering news.
"Two things I noticed were speed variance and the ability to stay in her lane. As the day progressed we saw those skills started to deteriorate," Nick explains to my producer.
"Turns out, I had a trouble maintaining my lane and I would travel from the shoulder on the right, over the center line on left. I also had trouble with my speed, reaching more than 80 miles an hour while entering the highway. Drowsy drivers can have trouble perceiving how quickly they are coming up on another vehicle, and this is a leading cause of crashes. Sobering news for me, but I was not done driving yet."
"I had one more test 3 hours after taking the Ambien. Dr. McAvoy and her team had created a winter driving scenario, just like something we will experience this winter in Cleveland. Before I get started, Nick tells me the speed limit is 55 miles per hour. With 'computer-generated' snow falling, I get going on my test. It's light snow, something that requires winter driving skills, but wouldn't bring Cleveland commuters to a crawl. However, within 30 seconds I've lost control of my car."
"I try to correct but end up 'overcorrecting' and slam at a high rate of speed into a concrete barrier. I think I've hit black ice but Dr. McAvoy tells me no. Confused, I ask if I can drive off. But Dr. McAvoy tells me my car would have received heavy damage, and I would have likely received serious injuries. I no longer remember my conversation with Nick about the speed limit. And, it's evident I didn't adjust my driving speed for the winter road conditions."
"After this final test, our crew packs up and drives back to Ohio. I sleep off the rest of my Ambien on the drive home. A few days later, back at WKYC, I begin reviewing the video. What concerns me most is that I have little to no memory of my last two tests. I remember crashing the car, but do not recall what I said, or what was said to me."
"Researchers will continue to study the effects sleeping medication have on the brain, and we may soon see a few more driving studies. But if you are taking a prescription sleeping aid, be very aware of its warnings and potential side effects. And, take it from me, have someone take away your car keys."