Every Drop Matters When Drinking and Driving

A pair of sociologists from the University of California, San Diego has recently released a study in the journal publication Addiction which brings into serious question current standards for alcohol consumption and driving. The study researched linkages between blood alcohol levels and car accident severity and mortality. Study findings strongly suggest that our nation’s currently acceptable blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level of .08% is far from protecting drivers, their passengers and fellow motorists.

Researchers David Phillips and Kimberly Brewer examined information located in the Fatality Analysis Reporting System database to determine if and what linkages exist between BAC and the severity of a car accident. The FARS database works well for this since it maintains records concerning every car crash in the United States which resulted in at least one fatality. The pair examined data pertaining to car accidents in the years 1994-2008 involving nearly 1.5 million people.

The database records pertinent information related to the accidents. Since factors other than BAC can affect drivers, the research team factored out extraneous influences. For example, the highest incidence of accidents occurs on summer weekends during the evening and early morning hours. Accounting for those conditions, the team was able to focus on any BAC – severity linkages. The research accounted for factors such as being tired and driver inattention as well.

Phillips and Brewer’s findings reveal what is known as a Dose-Response relationship when comparing BAC to car accident severity. For every .01% of increase in a driver’s BAC there existed an increase in the car’s speed and the severity of the accident. In fact, the study demonstrated that a single drink, even light beer, makes a driver more likely to end up in an accident and one that is more severe than if they had driven sober. In terms of percentages, even when the driver has consumed so little alcohol that it is barely measurable, any accident will be 37% more severe than had they driven sober. A BAC of as small as .01% was demonstrated to result in more severe injuries than for .0% drivers.

Recent headlines have underscored the importance of this study. News coverage of young TV star Ryan Dunn’s death and that of his passenger reveals that he had been drinking in the hours leading up to the car crash which took their lives. Though Dunn did not appear drunk when he left a local bar, police say that Dunn’s car was probably travelling well in excess of 100mph when it flipped and crashed into a tree. Toxicology reports suggest that Dunn’s BAC was .196%.

This study demonstrates that drivers with even the tiniest ‘buzz’ will be: more apt to speed, less likely to put on their seat belt, and more likely to be behind the wheel of the "striking" vehicle in an accident.

Alcohol-influenced drivers are involved in one death every 48 minutes in the United States. Alcohol is the cause of roughly one third of crash fatalities each year. Other countries appear to see the linkage clearly: Germany has set acceptable BAC at .05%, Japan at .03% and Sweden as low as .02%. The UCSD study suggests that it is time to realize that even small amounts of alcohol impair driving ability and that acceptable BAC levels need to be brought closer to zero. Every drop matters.