Would You Ever Sedate Your Child for a Long Car Trip?

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Sleeping child in car

You’re planning a trip with the kids. It’s going to be fantastic. You’ll revisit many of the spots that you loved as a child, and you’re really looking forward to it. There’s just one problem: Six hours in the car.

Six long hours.

Last time you did a road trip with the kids, it was a disaster. When they weren’t fighting, they were complaining. At one point, you were so distracted by their behaviour that you almost sideswiped a truck. You were all shaken by the episode, and you vowed that next time you would take a different approach.

When planning for this road trip, some of your friends suggested that you give the kids Phenergan at the beginning of the trip. They assured you that it was harmless and would “work a treat” to keep the kids quiet.

You were a little surprised to hear that your friends drug their kids for long trips, but, you thought, if it’s commonplace, then surely it must be okay?

A surprising survey of motorists

A survey of motorists commissioned by insurer GIO found that nearly one-in-five NSW parents have sedated their children for long road trips. The survey canvassed 3,600 people nationwide, including 600 from NSW.

According to the survey, while most parents try to entertain their children with electronic devices, including iPads and DVD players, and some resort to giving their children special treats to eat, 18 per cent had used drugs to keep their children quiet.

The most common sedative parents had used was Phenergan, an antihistamine that can be purchased over the counter and is used to treat allergies.

Sound harmless? It may not be. Phenergan has been linked to cases of respiratory depression, which can sometimes be fatal. For that reason, it is not recommended for children under the age of two.

Phenergan has also been labelled an “unpredictable drug” when used for sedation, and may in some cases actually act as a stimulant and also cause hallucinations.

The moral issues surrounding the unnecessary sedation of children

Sedating children for travel raises moral issues – is it really okay to drug our kids for this purpose?

One commentator remarked in the SMH that:

“As a parent, it’s your responsibility to teach your child the skills to cope and behave in situations, including road trips. To reach into the cupboard and resort to drugging that child is morally outrageous.”

Others believed a road trip was the ideal opportunity for families to reconnect, or to play games such as “I Spy”.

But regardless of how the matter is viewed at a moral level, there is also the question of how the criminal law treats such conduct.

Circumstances in which drugs should be used

Some pharmacists and doctors agree that Phenergan should be used only to treat allergic reactions and that it is inappropriate to be used as a sedative.

If travel sickness medication is needed, other drugs can be used specifically for this purpose.

Medical advice should always be sought before administering medication to a child.

But is giving a child an over the counter medication ever a crime?

Using a drug to sedate children for long periods of travel is not in itself a crime, but there may be unintended criminal ramifications if something goes wrong.

For example, if a child tragically dies from a reaction to a sedative, there may be a coronial inquest and the parents could potentially be charged with manslaughter, even though there was no intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm.

If the child has a severe reaction to the drug, hospitalisation may be necessary and the Department of Family and Community Services could get involved. This may result in an investigation, and in extreme cases, criminal charges of recklessly causing grievous bodily harm..

There’s no doubt that driver distraction is a great danger on the roads, and it’s all too easy to lose concentration when the kids are fighting in the back, kicking the seat in front, or generally being rowdy.

More than half of the drivers surveyed said they had been distracted by their children while behind the wheel, and 64% even admitted to threatening to stop the car and leave their kids behind, or turning the music up.

But before you reach for the medication as you set off on your next long car trip, it’s worth remembering that while it might not be against the law to give something like Phenergan to a child, it does raise definite moral questions, and doing so could face unintended consequences. Maybe “I Spy” isn’t so bad after all.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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