When is it okay to drink and drive? Never. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) In 2016 one person died every 50 minutes in an alcohol-related crash—over 28 people per day. Although alcohol related crashes have dropped by one-third over the past 30 years it still causes over 10,000 vehicle deaths per year.

While a death is the ultimate price to pay for driving after drinking there are other consequences that can occur. Serious injuries to yourself and others, an arrest for driving while under the influence (DUI), and monetary losses due to damage to vehicle or personal property are a few examples.

Before you stand by the rule-of-thumb of pacing your drinks to one per hour you should realize your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) can be much lower than the legal limit and still impair your driving abilities. Of the 10,000 alcohol related vehicle deaths in 2016 over 2,000 people were killed due to a driver with a BAC from .01 to .07, which is under the legal limit.

Who's at risk? While anyone that gets behind the wheel after imbibing alcohol is a possible crash victim there are certain statistics that show higher risks. For example, drinking and driving is the number one cause of teenage deaths in the United States. Certain groups are more likely to take the chance than others and this article will take an in depth look at those risk takers.

If you're wondering what driving has to do with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) there's a direct correlation between those who get a DUI and are diagnosed with AUD. Around one-third of all people convicted of DUI are repeat offenders, meaning they already have one or more DUI conviction. This is a strong sign of addiction and is one of the reasons many states require mandatory alcohol counseling as part of their DUI conviction sentence.

Whether you've already been in an accident, gotten a DUI, or are still in the habit of driving after having one or more drinks, these are all signs that your alcohol use is getting out of hand. It's probably time to step back, take a look at your life, and find one or more sources of help so you can stop this risky behavior before your alcohol use ruins your life.

Drinking and Driving Dangers

There's a reason alcohol gives you a buzz. It reduces your brain function, which in turn impairs your reasoning, thinking, and muscle coordination. Although you may feel great and believe its okay to drive the fact of the matter is the opposite. The impact of alcohol on your brain gives you faulty reasoning and lack of judgment and combined with the lower coordination you lack the skills to drive safely.

It's not just the driver at risk, either. The NHTSA National Center for Statistics and Analysis data states in 2015 over 1,100 children under the age of 14 died in vehicle crashes, and almost 200 (16 percent) were due to alcohol impaired drivers. Of the 181 child deaths the following facts were found:

  • 92 children (51 percent) were in a vehicle where the driver had a BAC of .08 or higher
  • 59 (33 percent) were occupants of other vehicles involved in a DUI crash
  • 29 (16 percent) were walking, biking, or otherwise not an occupant of a vehicle

There are lesser risks involved when you get behind the wheel after drinking. The latest available vehicle accident economic cost data indicates accidents cost over $242 billion per year, and $44 billion is due to alcohol-impaired crashes. Besides the obvious damage to your vehicle and other cars involved there's a slew of other expenses that can add to the cost of an accident such as:

  • Emergency medical services
  • Medical costs
  • Legal and court fees
  • Property damages
  • Lost wages

Keep in mind, if you're at fault and convicted of a DUI your vehicle insurance probably won't pay these costs. You stand a good chance of losing your home and assets paying out-of-pocket expenses and may lose your job in the process.

BAC and driving

When you drink alcohol, it is absorbed through your stomach and small intestine before passing into your bloodstream. It stays in your bloodstream until your liver metabolizes it, and blood alcohol concentration (BAC) measures the amount of alcohol in your system in relation to the amount of water your blood contains.

According to Healthline there are many things that can affect your BAC. Here are some examples:

  • Weight
  • Age
  • Medications
  • Liver health
  • Food consumed
  • Binge drinking (drinking many drinks in a short amount of time)

People are different, so two people of the same age and weight can drink the same amount, but their BAC can be different. It's also important to note different drinks can have higher alcohol content including different varieties of beer. Here's an example of types of alcoholic drinks and a general time it takes to metabolize in an average person:

Standard shot of liquor one hour
16 ounces of beer two hours
Wine, one large glass three hours
Several drinks a few hours

It's against the law in all states for anyone under the age of 21 to drive with alcohol in their system. It's also illegal for any adult to drive with a BAC of .08 percent or higher (.05 in Utah). A BAC of .08 is roughly three drinks for someone that weighs 140 pounds, or about four drinks for someone weighing 190 pounds. The key word here is "roughly" because as noted above, not everyone processes alcohol the same.

Here are some BAC levels and effects of your driving ability:

.05 BAC Reduced coordination and response to emergency situations
.08 BAC Loss of concentration, memory, speed control, and perception
.10 BAC Reduced ability to brake properly and maintain lanes
.15 BAC Impaired vehicle control, reduced sight and hearing processing

Most states have harsh penalties for higher BAC offenses, called a "super drunk" DUI. Although New Jersey has a higher BAC of .10 in most states it's about double the normal, or around .15 BAC. Why the harsher penalties? Because the more you drink, the more it affects your brain. In 2016 a full 57 percent of drunk driving fatalities involved BACs of .15 or higher.

Who is at Risk

While anyone who gets behind the wheel after drinking is taking the risk of getting a DUI or worse there are certain groups that are proven to be more likely to do so. Here are some scary statistics from the centers for Disease Control (CDC) about drinking and driving:

  • Four out of five DUIs are men
  • 85 percent of DUIs were from binge drinking
  • Men aged 21 to 34 are responsible for 32 percent of DUIs even though they are only 11 percent of the general population
  • One in five teens involved in a fatal crash had alcohol in their system
  • 85 percent of teens involved in a fatal crash had a BAC higher than the legal level for adults
  • Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers

Why younger men? Mainly because men not only drink more, they also binge drink more. Around 58 percent of men drank in the past month, and over 22 percent of those men admit to binge drinking an average of five times a month with an average consumption of eight drinks per binge. That's almost twice as many men binge drinking than women, so they're more likely to be caught behind the wheel while impaired.

Teens are especially high risk because they lack driving experience and are also more likely to binge drink. Because they don't understand the effects of alcohol on their brain and coordination they are more likely to get behind the wheel when they shouldn't.

Drivers with a BAC over .08 make up 63 percent of total vehicle crash fatalities. Passengers riding with a drunk driver account for 15 percent of fatalities, and occupants of another vehicle involved in a drunk driving crash make up 14 percent of casualties. The final eight percent of drunk driving fatalities are non-occupants who were walking or riding a bike in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Correlation between DUI and Alcohol Use Disorder

Getting a DUI doesn't mean you have alcohol use disorder (AUD) but there is a correlation to the two. Basically, think of your DUI as a big warning sign that your drinking may be getting out of hand.

Most states have legislation in place that requires someone who receives a DUI must get alcohol evaluation, education, treatment, or counseling as part of their sentence. About 30 percent of all DUIs are not the first offense, which is a clear indication of addiction. About one-third of repeat offenders have a BAC of .15 or higher when arrested, so if you have a second or third offense you're most likely be considered "super drunk" when you are given a breathalyzer test.

A DUI alcohol evaluation will help you understand whether your alcohol consumption is affecting other areas of your life such as family and work, and whether your drinking is considered alcohol dependence or alcohol abuse. The evaluator may then decide on a course of action such as classes or treatment.

A full 90 percent of people who admit to binge drinking are not alcohol dependent or alcoholics. Only 2.5 percent of women and 4.5 percent of men meet the criteria to be considered alcohol dependent, so you should take the evaluation and education as a bonus to give you the chance to face the issue before it becomes an ongoing problem.

If you have a DUI and continue to drive while under the influence, sooner or later you'll get another DUI. Because of the high rate of fatal accidents associated with repeat offenders at that point the court will consider you a danger to others and the penalties will be much worse. That's why it's vital you determine whether you have AUD as soon as possible once you get a DUI.

Depending on the state you live in you may not have a chance for treatment if you reoffend. For example, in Arizona your first offense will cost you 10 days in jail, $750, and a 90-day license suspension and you'll be required to install a car breathalyzer once you get your license back. If you have a second DUI you'll face 90 days in jail and a minimum fine of $1,750. You'll also have to pay attorney and court fees and will have a loss of wages while in jail. That's why it's vital you seek evaluation and help if you get a DUI.

Getting help

If you have a DUI, it's a big warning sign. Although many people get caught behind the wheel after drinking and never do it again you need to understand cause and effect: when you drink you have to get back home, so when you decide to drink you should arrange transportation. If you don't you probably need help with AUD because you're showing signs of addiction.

Although not inclusive, here are some other signs your drinking has become a problem you need help with:

  • Your alcohol tolerance is getting bigger
  • Feeling signs of withdrawal
  • Experiencing serious negative consequences due to drinking

In a study by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in New Mexico of 700 DUI recipients just under half reported heavy drinking for several years prior to their DUI. Another 19 percent were lifelong drinkers, and 25 percent had one or more periods of reduced drinking or abstinence before drinking heavily again.

Your DUI should be taken as an opportunity to confront your drinking habits and seek continuing treatment such as outpatient counseling, support group meetings, therapy sessions, or inpatient detoxification at a treatment facility.

Sources:

  • https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/drunk-driving

  • https://www.ncadd.org/about-addiction/driving-while-impaired-alcohol-and-drugs

  • https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/drinkinganddriving/index.html

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