Most people assume that there is a threshold they cross between slightly intoxicated and “too drunk” to get behind the wheel. But a new study shows that no matter how clear you think your head is, if you’ve been drinking you may want to catch a ride.
According to the research published in the journal Injury Prevention, as little as one-half of a beer could change your driving ability, putting you at a far greater risk of being involved in a serious car accident. The researchers suggest policy makers and advocacy groups look more closely at drunk driving laws and limits, and consider cracking down on “buzzed” drivers too.
The Problem of Drunk Driving
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates “alcohol impaired drivers” are involved in about 1 in 3 traffic accident deaths. In 2010, this added up to 10,228 fatalities. Of the 211 children who died in alcohol-related car accidents that year, over half were riding in the car with a drunk driver.
Alcohol affects everyone differently, but there is little doubt it can have profound effects on everyone’s ability to safely operate a vehicle.
Alcohol slows reaction time and clouds judgment. It can alter your equilibrium and cause you to make dangerous decisions that you wouldn’t normally make. When you’ve been drinking and you get behind the wheel, you bring this danger to everyone who shares the road with you.
Most drunk driving research is based on analyzing drivers who have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08 percent or greater. This is because .08 percent is considered the legal limit at which a driver can be charged with drunk driving. But the new research says drivers with BACs of .07 and as low as .01 could also pose risks on the road.
“Buzzed” Driving No Better
Researchers with the University of California, San Diego, looked at 570,000 crashes between 1994 and 2011. They looked at alcohol-involved accidents and those where there was a clear indicator of blame, or where one specific driver was faulted for the crash.
What they found was that a driver doesn’t have to be drunk or reach the .08 threshold to be a danger on the roads. They found there is “no safe level” of alcohol when it comes to driving.
The lowest recorded level of BAC in the study was .01 percent. This low BAC would be triggered by an average-sized man drinking one-half of a 12-ounce beer. But even this low BAC increased crash risk significantly. As a matter of fact, a driver with a .01 BAC was 46 percent more likely to be blamed for a crash than a sober driver, according to the study.
The legal limit for the amount of alcohol that drivers may have in their bloodstream has been gradually getting more strict—dropping from .15 percent a few decades ago to .08 BAC today. In some countries, the legal limit is .05 percent and in others it’s even lower.
This study and the numerous serious accidents caused by buzzed drivers who are not over the .08 legal limit make a case for re-examining whether the legal limit in the U.S. should be tightened as well.