Inhalants and Driving Impairment

Inhalants and Driving Impairment

Inhalants and Driving Impairment

Inhalants and Driving ImpairmentInhalants are a diverse group of commercially available products sometimes abused for their ability to alter normal states of consciousness. While some of these products exist primarily because of their intoxicating drug effects, most are household or industrial substances adapted for use because of their easy availability relative to most illegal drugs of abuse. People who abuse inhalants can develop a number of serious impairments to their ability control a motor vehicle and drive safely. Some of these impairments can appear suddenly or unexpectedly when inhalant users succumb to the effects of the toxic chemicals present in their bodies.

Inhalant Basics

As their name strongly implies, inhalants enter the body through breaths drawn in with the nose and/or mouth. In some cases, abusers directly breathe in these inhalant substances; in other cases, they breathe in the fumes given off by various substances. There are four basic groups of inhalants: gases, volatile solvents, aerosols, and nitrites. Gases commonly abused for their drug-like properties include butane, propane, ether, nitrous oxide, chloroform, halothane, and various types of refrigerants. Commonly abused volatile solvents include glues, degreasers, gasoline, paint thinners, pain removers, and various dry-cleaning fluids. Commonly abused aerosols include spray paints, hair sprays, cooking sprays, fabric sprays, and deodorant sprays. Commonly abused nitrites include cyclohexyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, and amyl nitrite. Amyl nitrite has medical value for certain people with heart problems; however, most nitrites are sold illegally or under names designed to hide their true chemical nature.

While inhalants are chemically diverse, they share the common property of producing organ or tissue damage in addition to an alcohol-like intoxication. The specific type of damage involved varies according to the inhalant under consideration. For instance, people who inhale gasoline or glue expose themselves to a deadly chemical called hexane, which can trigger loss of consciousness, uncontrolled muscle spasms and heart failure. People who inhale nitrous oxide can damage their bone marrow, which is responsible for blood cell production. People who inhale glue, fingernail polish or spray paint expose themselves to toluene, a chemical that can trigger liver or kidney damage, brain or spinal cord damage, hearing loss or death. While some inhalant abusers experience negative health effects that build gradually over time, others experience rapid changes in their mental or physical status, or even die unexpectedly in a phenomenon known as sudden sniffing death syndrome (SSDS).

Effects on Task Performance

Toluene is one of the most common ingredients in popularly abused inhalants. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which forms part of the US Department of Transportation, maintains a database of research on the ways in which toluene can interfere with the basic mental and physical skills required for safe and accurate driving. Specific task-related effects associated with intentional toluene abuse or accidental toluene exposure include reductions in normal memory function, general loss of accurate visual perception, specific loss of the ability to perceive color, abnormally slow body movement, a delayed reaction to changes in the local environment, loss of normal powers of concentration, a reduced attention span, loss of the normal ability to accurately follow instructions, spatial and mental disorientation, and loss of the normal ability to make higher-level decisions or logical judgments.

Contributions to Driving Impairment

As stated previously, inhalants typically produce mind-altering effects that resemble the effects of alcohol intoxication. According to a study published in 2009 in the Journal of Forensic Sciences, the real-world driving impairments produced by inhalant intoxication also closely resemble the driving impairments produced by alcohol intoxication. Common examples of these impairments include loss of normal road awareness, loss of the ability react properly to changing driving circumstances, loss of the ability properly control driving speed, loss of the ability to safely maintain position within a lane, loss of the ability to follow other vehicles at a safe distance, and an increased tendency to attempt unsafe driving maneuvers. As with alcohol intoxication, these impairments create seriously elevated risks for involvement in accidents that damage property and/or lead to major injuries or fatalities.


As previously indicated, inhalant abusers can experience severe changes in their state of consciousness with little or no warning. In the worst-case scenario, affected individuals die abruptly from the effects of sudden sniffing death syndrome. When added to the known effects of driving while under the influence of an abused inhalant, the inherently unpredictable nature of SSDS produces an enhanced level of danger for anyone sharing the road with an inhalant-abusing driver.

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