updated 3/15/2006 6:12:59 AM ET 2006-03-15T11:12:59

There's a growing hazard on the roadway, the kind of motorist who smashes into parked cars,  plows over sidewalks and drives in the wrong direction, all while oblivious to the destruction left behind. These drivers aren't drunk or stoned — they're under the influence of Ambien, the nation's most popular prescription sleeping pill.

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Ambien is regularly popping up as a factor in traffic arrests, sometimes involving drivers who don't even remember getting behind the wheel, according to a report in The New York Times Wednesday.

In some state toxicology laboratories, Ambien shows up in the top 10 list of drugs found in impaired drivers. In Wisconsin, Ambien was detected in the bloodstreams of 187 arrested drivers from 1999 to 2004, the newspaper reported.

As more insomniacs turn to the drug — there were 26.5 million prescriptions filled last year in the United States — Ambien-related arrests and accidents are expected to rise. 

In Washington state, for example, officials counted 78 impaired-driving arrests in which Ambien was a factor last year, up from 56 in 2004. Some of Washington's zombie-like drivers said they took the sleeping pill while behind the wheel so that it would kick in by bedtime.

"Wow, that's a really bad idea," said sleep specialist Dr. Brooke Judd,  an assistant professor of medicine and psychiatry at Dartmouth Medical School. "These newer sleep medications have a rapid onset so people can  get to sleep quickly. You shouldn't take them until you are really ready to go to bed."

Judd also warns sleeping-pill users to get at least eight hours of shut-eye. That's how long the sedative effect can last. An early-riser who hits the road might still be too groggy to drive, she said.

Several cases also involved drivers using alcohol with Ambien — a combination that magnifies the drowsy effects of the drug.

A spokeswoman for the Food & Drug Administration told the newspaper that the agency is aware of reports of people driving while sleepwalking, but said the drug's current label warnings, which say it should not be used with alcohol and in some cases could cause sleepwalking or hallucinations, were adequate. Users are advised not to drive or operate machinery while taking the drug.

The pills, intended to help short-term insomnia, have been on the market for 13 years and are said to be safe, according to Ambien's maker, Sanofi-Aventis. But there are reports of "hangover" effects such as grogginess as well as some risks of abuse and dependence. Some patients have also reported an amnesia effect where they may sleepwalk, or sleeptalk without remembering it.

Laura J. Liddicoat, the forensic toxicology supervisor at Wisconsin's state laboratory, presented six cases of Ambien drivers at a meeting of the American Academy of Forensic Scientists, including a man who crashed into two cars and drove over a curb. This was all news to him when confronted by the police.

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