Sleepwalking Into History, Kennedy Style

How Patrick Kennedy's dangerous driving became Ambien's fault


Say what you will about Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-RI): He knows just the B.S. for the occasion. After ramming his green 1997 Ford Mustang convertible into a security barrier on Capitol Hill at 2:45 AM 11 days ago, he explained to Capitol Police that he was "late for a vote." Even in his impaired state (which we'll get to in a minute), Rep. Kennedy knew that he had a Constitutional get-out-of-jail-free card: Article I, Section 6, which says that "United States Senators and Representatives shall in all cases, except treason, felony, and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during their attendance at the session of their respective houses, and in going to and returning from the same." Congress had been out of session for hours, but that didn't stop the Capitol Police from extending special treatment to a staggering and bleary-eyed Kennedy: Instead of the ride to the station for a night in lock-up that the average impaired driver gets, they gave him a ride home.

Kennedy issued a statement that he'd been in a car accident, adding, "I consumed no alcohol prior to the incident." But then police officers involved in the incident complained through their labor union about the special treatment afforded Rep. Kennedy, whose "eyes were red and watery," according to the police report, which added that his "speech was slightly slurred and, upon exiting his vehicle, his balance was unsure." Rather than cop to drinking, Kennedy claimed he had no memory of the incident because of an interaction between "the prescribed amount of Phenergan and Ambien." The former is an anti-nausea drug which Kennedy was taking for gastroenteritis. The latter is a sleep aid, and is at the center of a panic over "sleep-driving" that Kennedy rather fashionably invoked.

Somnambulism, the clinical term for sleepwalking, is listed in prescribing guidelines as a "rare" side-effect of Ambien, meaning that it has been reported in fewer than 0.1 percent of patients. With 26.5 million prescriptions written for Ambien in 2005, it's no surprise that a few people have found themselves up and about during sleepy-time. On March 6, a class action lawsuit was filed in federal court against the Sanofi-Aventis, the French company that makes Ambien, alleging that the company has understated the incidence of somnambulism and the related phenomenon of amnestic nocturnal eating behavior, i.e. sleep-eating. In estimating the size of the class, the lawsuit claims that "more than 1,000 persons have suffered injury or damage as a direct and proximate result of ingesting Ambien"—which is, of course, too small a fraction of the millions of people who've used Ambien to support the claim that the risk is understated. (The plaintiffs also hope to show that Sonofi-Aventis knew about the risk of somnambulism in the years before the warning was added to the prescribing guidelines; there does not seem to be any evidence for this charge.)

In the past few months, spurred in part by the lawsuit, numerous news outlets have reported on Ambien somnambulism, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CBS Sunday Morning. Many of these reports seem to conflate sleep-driving incidents with any accident where Ambien is listed as a factor. Taking a sleeping pill before driving is, of course, just regular old impaired driving, a world away from sleepwalking to the car and unconsciously going for a ride. But it would be easy to miss the distinction reading reports like this New York Times account, where counts of arrested drivers with Ambien in their bloodstream are juxtaposed with sleep-driving anecdotes.

To those of us skeptical of Patrick Kennedy's sleep-driving excuse, the next revision of his story wasn't too surprising. Dropping the "prescribed amount" line, he declared that he'd relapsed into addiction and headed to the Mayo Clinic for rehab. Meanwhile, a source told the Boston Herald that Kennedy was spotted tippling at the Hawk 'n' Dove, a Capitol Hill bar, the night of the accident. By stoking the Ambien panic, though, Kennedy may have helped scare weary souls away from seeking sleep-aids—and that could be more dangerous than a Kennedy with double vision and a Mustang. Sleep-deprived drivers cause 100,000 automobile accidents a year in this country. Any way you slice it, exhaustion makes our roads orders of magnitude more dangerous than a pill that grants millions a good night sleep.