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Drunk Driving

  • Chris Woolston, M.S.
  • Posted March 11, 2013

You've heard the adage that "drinking and driving don't mix." But if you've ever been in a bar around closing time, you know that a lot of people haven't gotten the message. A report from researchers at Boston University estimates that Americans take about 820 million drives each year after drinking. Almost 20 percent -- 159 million -- of those drivers are legally drunk when they take the wheel.

Thanks to increasing public awareness and stiff penalties, drunk driving isn't as common as it used to be, but it's still a huge threat on the nation's streets and highways. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 13,000 people died in alcohol-related car crashes in 2007, accounting for 32 percent of total traffic fatalities for the year.

In addition, alcohol was a factor in 17 percent of all traffic-related deaths that year of people aged 16 to 20. The 21 to 24 age category had the highest percent of intoxicated drivers involved in fatal crashes for 2007. Of children 14 and younger who died in alcohol-related crashes, more than half were riding with the intoxicated driver.

How much alcohol does it take to become legally drunk?

In all states and the District of Columbia, it's illegal to drive with a BAC (blood alcohol content) of 0.08 percent or above. Different bodies break down alcohol at different rates, so it's impossible to say exactly how much alcohol it takes to cross this line. But here are some estimates: A typical 170-pound man with an empty stomach would have to drink four servings of alcohol in an hour to reach a BAC of 0.08 percent. (A 12-ounce beer, a glass of wine, and a shot of hard liquor all count as a serving.) A 135-pound woman could have a BAC of 0.08 percent after just three drinks -- or fewer if the bar or party host is pouring larger-than-normal servings.

That's the amount of alcohol it takes to be charged with drunk driving. That doesn't mean that if you have less, it's safe for you to drive. You might very well be significantly impaired on as little as one drink. That's why the US Department of Health and Human Services warns people that it's not safe to drive after drinking any alcohol.

How much alcohol does it take to make driving dangerous?

One drink can be enough to impair driving. A glass of beer or shot of hard liquor will raise your BAC by about 0.02 percent -- enough to double the risk of dying in a single-car accident.

Blood alcohol level doesn't tell the whole story about safety. In some cases, a person who just had a couple of drinks may be more impaired than a person who had four or five. Alcohol can interact with some medications (such as sedatives, narcotic pain relievers, or antihistamines) to cause extreme drowsiness. Alcohol and a lack of sleep are a dangerous combination, too. A recent study in the journal Sleep found that sleep-deprived people performed poorly on driver simulation tests after just two or three drinks over two hours. The subjects also greatly overestimated their ability to drive.

How does alcohol affect driving?

Alcohol is a depressant that slows reflexes, clouds judgment, and makes the mind wander. It all adds up to trouble behind the wheel.

Drivers with a BAC of 0.05 percent or above will have noticeable trouble steering or parking. By the time a driver reaches a BAC of 0.08 percent, he has real difficulty keeping track of two things at once. If he's paying close attention to the speedometer, he probably isn't watching the cars in the next lane. His peripheral vision suffers, and he'll have trouble following moving objects with his eyes.

Once BAC goes over 0.10, a person will have slow reaction times and poor control over his body. When he's on two feet, he'll sway and stagger. As a pedestrian, he could be in imminent danger of getting hit by a car. Behind the wheel, he's primed for an accident.

What are the legal penalties for drunk driving?

The penalties for driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI) vary from state to state, but every state takes the crime seriously. First offenders can expect to have their licenses suspended for anywhere from one month to a year. The typical first-time offender will also have to attend an alcohol education program or treatment program and pay about $2,000 in fines. Jail or prison time is also a possibility, especially if the driver is extremely intoxicated or was involved in an accident:

The penalties get much more severe for multiple offenders. Most states will impound a driver's car, jail time can stretch out to a year or more, and the fine can grow to tens of thousands of dollars. And repeat offender or not, some drivers who have killed people while driving under the influence have also been charged with murder.

How can I protect myself from a drunk driver?

The National Commission Against Drunk Driving has this advice:

  • Don't ride in a car driven by someone who has been drinking -- call a taxi or ask a friend to drive you home.
  • Keep a safe distance from anyone who is weaving or driving recklessly.
  • Wear your seatbelt, and ensure that any children ride in car safety seats.
  • Use a pay phone or pull over and use your cell phone to report drunk drivers to the police or highway patrol.

Is there anything else that I can do?

Yes. If you're hosting a party, try not to make drinking the main event. Include lots of nonalcoholic drinks such as sparkling water, iced tea, lemonade, or juice, and offer foods like cheese and meats that will linger in the stomach and help delay the absorption of alcohol. Stop serving alcohol 1 1/2 hours before the end of the party and offer coffee and tea instead. Finally, keep phone numbers of local cabs handy or ask someone who wasn't drinking to drive guests home. If that fails, be prepared to put an inebriated guest up on your couch until morning.

What do I do if I think I have a problem with alcohol?

If you believe that you or a loved one has a problem with alcohol, get help. Some of the signs of alcoholism include an uncontrollable craving for alcohol, an inability to stop at one or two drinks, drinking first thing in the morning, and needing more and more to get "high." Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous have quizzes on their Web sites designed to tell you whether you might be an alcoholic. If you are worried you are a problem drinker, discuss the issue with your doctor.

If you think that a loved one is an alcoholic, seek help as soon as possible through your doctor or one of the many self-help groups available. Also, seek support for yourself through a group such as Al-Anon, which helps families and friends of alcoholics.

A drunk driving arrest is a wake-up call for a lot of people. Of course, an arrest isn't the worst thing that can happen when a drunk person gets behind the wheel. Every year, almost 17,000 people pay a much higher price.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Impaired Driving. 2010

Hingson R, et al. Epidemiology and consequences of drinking and driving. Alcohol Research and Health. Vol. 27, No. 1 2003.

Banks S, et al. Low levels of alcohol impair driving simulator performance and reduce perception of crash risk in partially sleep deprived subjects. Sleep. 2004 Sep 15;27(6):1063-7.

FindLaw. DUI Penalties. Undated.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 2007 Traffic Safety Annual Assessment Alcohol-Impaired Driving Fatalities. August 2008.

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