Drunk driving has been a problem for as long as driving has existed. To this day, accidents and unintentional injury have remained on the list of top causes of death in the United States; many of these accidents involve cars and drinking. Unlike other causes of death on the list, like various diseases, drunk driving is always preventable. Still, drinking and alcohol are ingrained in American culture, almost as much as automobiles and the open road. But mixing the two can have some serious consequences for yourself and the people around you. Learn how alcohol affects your ability to drive, the statistics around drunk driving, and the laws that dictate what happens if you drive drunk.
Drunk Driving Statistics
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there is an alcohol-related death every 48 minutes. Around 28 people die every day in the U.S. because of drunk driving. In 2019, there were 10,142 deaths from drunk driving. That number was the lowest annual drunk driving rate that NHTSA reported since 1982. However, when drunk driving deaths are all preventable, any number is too high. It isn’t just drinkers that fall victim to intoxicated driving. Passengers and other motorists are also killed. In 2018, NHTSA found that more than 230 children under the age of 15 were killed in alcohol-related crashes.
Binge drinking is a major contributor to alcohol-related accidents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that one in six adults in the U.S. binge drinks four times per month. During a binge, they drink an average of seven drinks in a short time frame. The largest group of binge drinkers are between the ages of 25 and 34, followed closely by young adults between 18 and 24.
High school students also binge drink at high rates, at more than 15% of their age category. Men are twice as likely to binge drink than women. Younger binge drinkers consume larger amounts of alcohol while binging. Underage drinkers may also have less developed livers which means that it can take longer for their bodies to process alcohol.
Besides auto accidents, there are other risks associated with binge drinking, including other types of accidents like falls, burns, and alcohol poisoning. Binge drinking is also associated with higher risks of homicide, suicide, sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases, and unintended pregnancy. Long-term alcohol misuse can also lead to alcohol use disorders, liver disease, and certain types of cancer.
The annual cost of alcohol-related crashes is around $44 billion from a variety of related expenses like hospital bills, emergency response, and other things. Binge drinking and alcohol misuse, in general, is estimated to cost around $249 billion in the United States each year.
What Happens if You Get Pulled Over While Drunk?
If you’re driving drunk and you get pulled over, it’s likely that the officer already suspects you of driving under the influence unless you’re pulled over for something else like speeding. The officer will ask you questions to investigate a possible crime. In this case, they want to know if you’re driving drunk. Traffic laws vary from state to state, but if you’re pulled over, you are legally required to show your license and registration in most jurisdictions. The officer may ask questions or ask to perform a field sobriety test.
In most states, you can refuse to give that information, but if the officer has enough information to justify a DUI arrest, you will be brought to the station whether or not you give additional information. At the station, you may be required to take sobriety tests as part of a police investigation. If you refuse, there may be more severe consequences than when you refuse a roadside sobriety test. Depending on the state, refusing a sobriety test at the station could result in a driver’s license suspension. If the investigation shows you’re beyond the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to drive, you will be charged with a DUI or DWI. The legal limit for BAC is 0.08%.
Once you’re charged, if a case is filed, you may be convicted of a crime, and it could go to trial. You may be required to pay a fine, attend DUI classes, and you could have your license suspended. Depending on whether this is your first-time offense or a second or more, you may do jail time, community service and pay hefty fines.
What if I Get in a Crash?
If you get in a car accident while under the influence, penalties may be much worse. You’re much more likely to be found at fault for the crash, which means you and your insurance company will be responsible for damages. If the crash causes an injury to another driver, you may be charged with a felony. Your fines may be much higher, even thousands of dollars. You may also lose your license and spend time in jail or prison. You may also be liable to civil suits if the victims try to seek restitution. In that case, you could end up paying thousands of dollars in hospital bills and other losses.
What if Someone is Killed?
If you’re driving while drunk and get in an accident where someone is killed, you may be charged with vehicular homicide, also called vehicular manslaughter. The charge can apply to all reckless driving, including driving under the influence, drowsy driving, or distracted driving. Depending on the state or county, vehicular homicide is a second-degree felony, and you could face up to fifteen years in prison, fifteen years of probation, and a $10,000 fine. These specific numbers could be more or less in some states.
How Alcohol Affects Your Ability to Drive
Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, though it can also make you feel energized and hyperactive when your BAC is going up. Alcohol is a psychoactive substance, which means that it can affect your mind. It can also affect your body and how your nervous system functions. But how does that cause you to be less effective behind the wheel of a car? Here are some ways alcohol can affect your driving.
How Alcohol Affects Your Body
When you drink alcohol, your body has no way to store it, so it goes to work right away to process the substance and remove it from your body. Alcohol enters your body and is absorbed through your digestive system. When it enters your blood, your liver goes to work to filter it out before it ever reaches your brain. The amount of alcohol you drink and the speed at which you drink it can increase your BAC levels. Other variables can slow down alcohol absorption, like the amount of food in your stomach.
If you drink a single drink within an hour or two, your liver may be able to filter it out of your bloodstream so that it doesn’t affect your brain. However, if you drink multiple drinks within an hour, your liver won’t be able to process all the alcohol that’s reaching it all at once. Alcohol that gets past your liver is able to reach the brain and get past the blood-brain barrier, a semipermeable membrane that keeps some substances from entering your brain. It will also distribute to other organs. Your liver will continue to process alcohol, but it only removes a single drink (8 grams of pure alcohol) per hour.
How Alcohol Affects the Brain
Once the alcohol starts to affect your brain, it influences a neurotransmitter in the brain called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). GABA is one of the main chemicals in your brain that’s responsible for rest and relaxation. GABA facilitates sleep, relieves anxieties, and relaxes your muscles. Alcohol, like other depressant drugs, can increase the potency of GABA by making its effects on your nerve cells last longer. GABA binds to its receptors and opens a channel that slows down nervous system activity. Alcohol can keep that channel open for longer. Alcohol’s depressing effects can make you feel sleepy; it lowers your inhibitions and generally slows you down. It also slows down nervous system activity, which can make your reaction time slower, impairs your motor functions, relaxes muscle movements, and it can impair your decision-making skills.
Impaired Decision Making
When you’re drinking, your ability to make the right decision may be impaired, meaning alcohol can play a role in your decision to get behind the wheel in the first place. Even low levels of intoxication can slow down your thinking and reaction time. Even if you believe you can safely drive home, you may be unable to adapt to quick changes in the road, like a car running a stop sign or merging into your lane. While these things would be easy to respond to while you’re sober, they may be too fast to react to while intoxicated.
Impaired Spatial Awareness
Spatial awareness is your ability to judge distance, the size of spaces, and the amount of time it might take for an object to reach a point in space. In other words, it helps you navigate your body and your car around without bumping into things. Alcohol can impair your spatial awareness, which means smaller gaps between two cars may seem like enough for you to merge into the next lane. You may think you can make a turn before an oncoming car reaches you when you’ve actually misjudged its speed.
Impaired Hand-Eye Coordination
Your hand-eye coordination is your ability to move your hands to manipulate objects based on your sight. In other words, it’s your ability to grab and manipulate things accurately may be diminished. This can make it more difficult to operate your vehicle.
Alcohol can also cause behavioral changes. When your BAC is rising, you may feel excited and energized. At this point, people are more likely to engage in risky behaviors like getting behind the wheel of a car or speeding. Your state of mind while you drink can also influence your behavior. When you’re happy, you may be excited and rambunctious. If something gets your spirits down, you may feel irritable or agitated. Both states of mind can be dangerous behind the wheel of a car. When your BAC is dropping, you may feel drowsy, apathetic, and relaxed, which can also be dangerous while driving.
What is Blood-Alcohol Concentration?
Blood-alcohol concentration refers to the amount of ethanol, which is pure drinking alcohol, that’s in your bloodstream. BAC is used to determine the level of intoxication that you are experiencing. Generally, the higher your BAC, the greater alcohol’s effects on you. Alcohol enters your bloodstream through your stomach and small intestines through a process called absorption. Absorption may be slowed by the amount of food that’s in your system. Drinking on an empty stomach may make you feel the effects of alcohol faster, but drinking with food in your system can make your BAC elevated for a longer period of time.
There are several factors that can affect your BAC when you drink. The number of drinks you have in a short period will determine how much your BAC rises. Again, your liver eliminates about one standard drink per hour. A standard drink can vary in size based on the beverage. For example, 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of liquor all individually count as one drink. Certain drinks that are served as single beverages can contain more alcohol than a standard drink. For instance, a 40-ounce beer can contain the equivalent of 3.6 standard drinks. Some mixed drinks like margaritas can contain 2 to 4 drinks or more.
Another factor is your size and sex. Men can generally drink more than women, but only by a small degree. For instance, the CDC says that moderate drinking is one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. That being said, size is a significant factor. Larger than average women may be able to drink more, while smaller than average men should drink less.
How Do Different BAC Levels Affect You?
As your BAC increases, you will start to feel more and more of the effects of alcohol. Both mental and physical effects will increase with your BAC levels. You may also experience different effects when your BAC is increasing versus when it’s decreasing. People often experience heightened mood and energy levels when their BAC is rising. When their BAC starts to drop, they may feel relaxed, drowsy, or even depressed.
When you have your first or second drink, your BAC will rise from .01 to .03. Generally, one standard drink can raise your BAC by .02, though this can vary based on several factors like your age, sex, and weight. At this point, you may not experience any effects at all, though some people may feel a slightly elevated mood. In some states, like California, .01 is enough to be beyond the legal driving limit for people under the age of 21.
After another drink or two, your BAC will rise to .04 to .06. At this point, you’ll feel relaxed, and you may feel a warming sensation. You may also start to experience some mild mental impairment at this point, especially related to reasoning and memory. In Utah, a BAC of 0.5 is above the legal limit to drive, even for people over 21.
At .07 to 0.9, you’ll begin to experience significant impairments that make driving dangerous. You may experience minor impairment of speech, balance issues, dizziness, and vision issues. You may also have some motor control impairment. In every state besides Utah, .08 puts you past the legal limit to drive.
At .10 to .12, you may experience more heavily slurred speech and worsened impairment of other functions. Your judgment and motor control will also be significantly impaired.
When you reach .13 to .15, your motor control may be severely impaired, and you can have trouble balancing. Your vision will start to blur, and you may start to feel restless or anxious, which is called dysphoria. At .16 to .20, your dysphoria symptoms will get worse, and you’ll start to feel nauseous. You may show the classic signs of a “sloppy drunk” with the inability to speak clearly or walk straight.
As you reach .25 to .30, you will reach severe intoxication, and symptoms will become more dangerous. You may not be able to walk without assistance, and you may be severely confused. You may also start vomiting. At .30, alcohol intoxication will start to become life-threatening.
When your BAC reaches .35 to .40, you can become unconscious, and it’s possible for you to slip into a coma. If your BAC exceeds .40, your risk of deadly alcohol poisoning significantly increases. You are more likely to fall into a coma and die from respiratory depression. Respiratory depression is when you stop breathing, or your breathing becomes dangerously slow. You may experience respiratory depression at lower BACs if you mix alcohol with opioids or other depressants.
How Can I Sober Up?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no way to sober up more quickly if you want to drive. The only thing that removes alcohol from your blood is your liver and time. Drinking coffee can prevent you from feeling drowsy, but it doesn’t help your reaction time, motor control, or other things that are affected by alcohol. Eating a hearty, fatty, or greasy meal may feel good when you’ve had alcohol, but it doesn’t change the length of time you’ll be intoxicated. Drinking water can also help with some of the symptoms of intoxication and hangover, but it doesn’t speed up sobriety.
Some things can slow down your body’s ability to process alcohol. Age, illness, and certain medications can make your body take longer to remove alcohol. If you think you’ve waited long enough before driving, keep in mind that alcohol can take several hours before it’s even fully absorbed into your system. If you drink several drinks in a short time, this absorption takes even longer.
That means it could take a few hours before all the alcohol you’ve drunk has entered your bloodstream. You can begin to feel the effects of alcohol within 10 minutes, but it can take 12 to 24 hours before you stop feeling the effects of intoxication. The more you drink, the longer it will take. Plus, the effects of a hangover can take 48 hours to go away.
The best way to sober up is to wait and give your body enough time to process alcohol. That’s why it’s recommended to have a designated driver or to call for a ride home when you’ve been drinking. That way, you can be sure that you have enough time to sober up before you get behind the wheel of a car again.
Preventing Drunk Driving Injuries
You can be involved in drunk driving incidents because of yourself, your friends, or other people on the road. The first and easiest one of these to control is yourself. When you’re planning on attending a party or visiting a place with alcohol, plan ahead. Decide if you’re going to drink and set limits for yourself. Sticking to limitations when you’re drinking is good for more than just avoiding drunk driving; it can help you better manage the rest of your night. If you plan to drink, choose a designated driver or use a car or ride-sharing services to travel. If you drive there and plan to let a friend drive home, give them your keys as soon as you arrive. Since alcohol can impair your judgment and increase risk-taking behavior, make firm commitments ahead of time and ask friends to keep you accountable.
Encourage your friends to do the same. Avoid getting blackout drunk or getting to the point where you can no longer make decisions for yourself. Even if you’re not driving, getting extremely drunk may lower your defenses about getting in a car with a drunk driver. When you’re sober and driving, stay vigilant on the road, especially during times when drunk drivers are more likely, like late weekend nights and holidays. Watch out for people that weave, swerve, make wide turns, respond slowly to road signals and signs, and break abruptly.