Blood Alcohol Level and Impaired driving

Introduction

In module 4.1 we noted a 24% reduction in a driver’s ability to perform complex driving tasks with a BAL of .10. The average BAL at arrest is often significantly higher than the .10.

With the first drink, alcohol affects the brain. With every drink thereafter, the ability to process information and multi-task continues to diminish. With a BAL of .05, reaction time slows down. It takes longer for the brain to tell the hands and feet what they should do. Higher BAL will result in elevated risk-taking decisions.

The higher the BAL, the higher the risk of a fatal crash.

Impairment can be prevented - don’t drink! The absorption of alcohol can be slowed down by eating, but only time can reduce the BAL level.

What can you do as an individual if circumstances exist where there is drinking? It is a good idea to be thinking about decisions that you can make when you are confronted with negative peer pressure to drink and possibly drive or to be in the vehicle with someone who has been drinking. Having a plan is a good defensive strategy to keep you safe and alive.

Finally, when you are on the road as a sober driver, you should be alert to the behaviors of drivers who might be driving while impaired.

This unit will serve to make you aware and safe if confronted with driving and drinking situations.

Learning Objectives

This module is about how blood alcohol level is related to a driver’s risk of dying in a crash. Topics include:
  1. The Facts about Blood Alcohol Level
  2. BAL Death Risk and Crash Responsibility
  3. Preventing Impairment
  4. Intervention Techniques
  5. Avoiding Drug-Impaired Drivers

1. The Facts About Blood Alcohol Level

With a low BAL, drivers may be able to perform simple driving tasks such as steering and braking. However in many individuals, fine muscle control and decision-making are impaired at BALs less than the illegal limit of .08.

Alcohol begins to affect your brain with the first drink. Soon after consuming a drink, upon achieving a low BAL of .02, your ability to process information and divide your attention or multi-task begins to deteriorate. The ability to process information and multi-task continues to diminish with every drink.

Next, at a BAL of around .05, the ability to track, or maintain lane position, is affected. Impaired drivers don’t realize how they are no longer able to perform fine muscle control activities required for smooth steering. This is when an impaired driver can noticeably be detected by law enforcement or other drivers as they weave in and out of their traffic lane.

At the .05 BAL level, reaction time also begins to slow down. This is a result of the slowing brain function - it takes longer to process information and consequently it takes longer for the brain to tell the hands and feet what to do. In the event of an unexpected event, which is continuous in most driving environments, it takes longer to brake or steer out of trouble. Just as all the other driving abilities diminish as BAL rises, reaction time continues to go down as BAL goes up.

As BAL continues to rise, to about the .10 level, risk-taking is elevated. This is when drivers do things they would normally not do. When drivers use poor judgment and take risks, such as speeding or driving aggressively, they have exceeded a threshold that now becomes completely unsafe. At this level, the impaired driver has poor judgment combined with the inability to process information, multi-task, or maintain lane position - at .10 the impaired driver is officially reckless, careless, and a huge threat to society.

The three leading causes of fatal collisions are:
  • Failure to maintain lane position
  • Speeding
  • Impaired driving
One or more of these causes is often a factor in a fatal crash - tracking, risk-taking, and impairment are often linked together and result in a deadly combination.

2. BAL Death Risk and Crash Responsibility

As BAL increases, the risk of a fatal crash also increases. Studies have examined the chance of being in a fatal crash for drivers at various BALs.

This chart illustrates the risk of being in a fatal crash based on gender and age as BAL rises. In the chart, M=male and F=female. After age 21, there was no gender difference in risk.

An easy way to interpret the chart is a male driver, age 16-20 is five times more likely to die in a single vehicle crash with a BAL of .02 -.049 than a male sober driver of the same age.

With a BAL of .08 - .099, a female male driver age 16-20 is 15 times more likely to die in a fatal crash than a sober female the same age.

The chart shows drivers of all ages are more at risk as BAL rises. Young male drivers have the greatest risk. A male with a BAL of .08 - .099 is 52 times more likely to die.


Gender & Body Weight

Your sex (gender) has impact on your BAC level. Alcohol does not affect men and women equally. Research indicates that alcohol’s effects on females tend to be stronger and last longer. This is because women produce a smaller amount of alcohol dehydrogenase, an enzyme that breaks down alcohol in the stomach. As a result, women reach a peak BAC about 20 percent higher than men do. As well Body Weight too affects the percentage of alcohol in your blood. A heavier person has more body fluids with which the alcohol will mix, and thus will have a lower BAC.

To really demonstrate how high the risk is, let's use a sample scenario:

It’s Friday night. Two members of a winning high school football team have decided to go to a party and celebrate. Player number one celebrates without drinking or doing drugs. Player number two has several beers in a short amount of time and quickly achieves a BAL of greater than .15. Both get behind the wheel to drive home just after midnight. The chances of player number two dying in a crash are 15,560 times greater than his sober teammate.

The time of day is also a factor that increases everyone’s risk. The most dangerous time of day is from midnight to 3:00 a.m. Even for a sober driver, the chance of being involved in a fatal collision with an impaired driver is about 50 times greater from 1:00-3:00 a.m. as it is from 7:00 a.m.-noon. According to the 2008 IIHS report, 55% of teen deaths from motor vehicle crashes occurred on Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.

There is a myth that people under the influence of alcohol are less likely to be killed in a crash than non-drinkers. This is supposedly because the drinker is more “loose” and limber, but research has not shown this to be the case. A study of the effect on fatality risk at various BALs has demonstrated that as BAL rises, the chance of being killed rises.

It is possible that a driver could have a high BAL and not be responsible for a crash in which he/she was involved. However research has proven that as BAL increases, it is much more likely that a driver be in a crash and be the cause of the crash.

This fact is true for injury collisions and not just fatal collisions.

3. Preventing Impairment

The best way to prevent impairment is to not drink.

There are ways to slow the absorption of alcohol, but sooner or later the alcohol that is consumed will enter the system and the BAL will be established.

Factors that prevent impairment and slow the absorption rate include food, time, the amount consumed, and the strength of alcohol in the drink.

Eating and drinking at the same time may help slow the alcohol intake. It is a good idea to eat before or while drinking because the body will be busy absorbing food and alcohol. This can slow the alcohol absorption rate by as much as one-third. Foods that are high in protein and starch are best for this purpose. Foods that are high in fat have the least impact on slowing the absorption rate.

Once a blood alcohol level has been established, time is the only thing that can reduce it. The oxidation process occurring in the liver rids the bloodstream of 90% of the alcohol present and is a constant process. This process will lower blood alcohol levels by .015 per hour for most individuals. For drugs other than alcohol, an even greater time may be necessary. Some drugs may be detectable for a period of weeks, as they are stored in fat tissue and readily detoxified by the liver.

Logically, the amount of alcohol consumed will affect the level of impairment. Consuming one drink over the time span of two hours versus drinking it quickly will still affect an individual, but the additional time gives the body an opportunity to rid itself of the alcohol and keep the BAL low. The faster it is consumed, the faster the BAL goes up. If an excessive amount is consumed, it will easily defeat the counter effects of food and time.

Alcohol content or strength of a beverage varies greatly and drinking a beverage of lower alcohol content is one deterrent to becoming impaired.

A defense plan to prevent impairment is to control the amount consumed, extend the time of consumption, and select a drink with low alcohol content.

After considering all of these factors, not drinking is still the best solution to prevent impairment.

4. Intervention Techniques

The best way of preventing impairment is not to drink. In this section, we will explore methods you can use to avoid being in a vehicle with a driver who has been drinking.

In this stage of your life, you are developing many significant and vital relationships. Who you are becoming is based on decisions, values, and principles that you believe are important. Sometimes, relationships may cause you to question some of your beliefs. This is one facet of peer pressure. Your peers can provide good “pressure” or negative “pressure.”

Examples of good peer pressure might be those that encourage safe and helpful behaviors, like suggesting that a friend not use drugs or drink at a party. Negative peer pressure would encourage someone to do something wrong, dangerous, or illegal. Often when friends encourage this type of behavior, they do not have the other person’s best interest in mind.

Maturity is the ability to be guided by your own values and beliefs, regardless of pressures from others. You are showing responsibility when you can make safe decisions for yourself and are not afraid of belittlement or possible rejection by others.

If opportunities are presented to you that are not within your beliefs and values, suggest alternative activities. For example, “Let’s go see a movie and get something to eat afterwards.” If that doesn’t work, say something like, “Hey, I know I am going to miss being with you all, but you can find me at the movies if you change your plans.”

If you are in a situation where drinks are being served, your first decision should be about your personal safety. Judgment and reasoning are the first areas affected by alcohol. All drivers, those who have been drinking as well as those who have not been drinking, share in the understanding of the hazards from drinking and driving.

Someone who has been drinking might show signs of impairment in different ways. Impaired people are not steady when walking and stumble. They also may talk loudly or have slurred speech. Often direct eye contact is difficult and other unusual behavior may be present.

Use positive peer pressure to prevent friends who have been drinking from driving. It is not wise to drive with someone who has been drinking. See if they will let you drive them home. At the very least, do not get in the car with a driver who is impaired. Call a cab or parent to come to the rescue. Try to be part of the solution - do not drink and drive. Encourage others to do the same.

5. Avoiding Drug-Impaired Drivers

Other drivers may operate their vehicles under the influence of drugs, and they will be sharing the road with you. Watch for indications that other drivers might be impaired:
  • Erratic changes in speed
  • Weaving from side to side
  • Traveling in the wrong lane
  • Running stop signs and lights
If you notice these driving symptoms in other drivers, their actions may be very unpredictable. It is best to distance yourself from the impaired driver. Increase the amount of space between you and the other vehicle by allowing the impaired driver to proceed ahead of you. If possible, alert the police of your observation and suspicion.

SUMMARY Review

  • Driving abilities are affected even at low BALs. Areas affected include divided attention, the ability to maintain lane position (tracking), risk-taking, reaction time, and other areas. In addition, actual driving tests in vehicles have shown significant declines in ability as BAL increases.

  • The chance of being involved in a fatal motor vehicle crash goes up sharply as BAL rises, and young people are particularly at risk.

  • The time of day as well as the day of the week significantly impact the incidence of fatal collisions resulting from impaired drivers. This relates to the driver who has been drinking as well as sober drivers.

  • Drinking drivers are more likely, rather than less likely, to die in a crash.

  • Not only are people more likely to be in a crash as BAL increases, but they are more likely to be responsible for the crash. This is true for injury collisions and fatal collisions.

  • The best way to prevent impairment is not to drink. Factors that prevent intoxication and slow the absorption rate include food, time, the amount consumed, and the strength of alcohol in the drink.

  • Responsible people make positive efforts to help friends make responsible decisions about the use of alcohol and driving. It is everyone’s responsibility to keep drinking people from driving. Your first decision is to keep yourself safe in situations that involve drinking and drinking.

  • Watch for indications that other drivers might be impaired:

    • Erratic changes in speed
    • Weaving from side to side
    • Traveling in the wrong lane
    • Running stop signs and lights

  • If you notice these driving symptoms in other drivers, their actions may be very unpredictable. Distance yourself from the impaired driver. If possible, alert the police of your observation and suspicion.


Alcohol affects your driving ability

The Cost of Alcohol and Drug Impairment



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