By Francis M. Smith
What do you call it when you've been drinking but you have not had enough to be considered legally intoxicated? Some call it being "buzzed".
Pretty much everyone knows what "Drunk Driving" means – you can't walk a straight line or recite the alphabet backwards, and you blow above a certain BAC level on the Breathalyzer or other device. In the US, that target number is 0.08. Anything below that means you're in the clear, you can drive safely, right?
Bolstered by recent studies, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has launched a campaign to make drivers aware that "buzzed" driving is still drunk driving. "Drunk" isn't a binary, yes-or-no state; there's no switch that gets flipped in the body or brain that changes a person from sober to intoxicated. Instead, intoxication is a continuum, a matter of degrees. You can be more drunk or less drunk, but any amount of alcohol impairs a driver's response time and judgment, making them more likely to cause a car crash.
Sociologist David Phillips of the University of California, San Diego led a study that analyzed the records of seventeen years' worth of fatal car crash reports from a US national database. The study encompassed over 570,000 accidents spanning from 1994 to 2011, and uncovered important statistical data about the effects of alcohol on drivers. The researchers' data included blood alcohol content (BAC) levels of the drivers involved in the crashes and definite indicators of blame for the accidents, such as driving on the wrong side of the road or running red lights.
The results they came up with would be surprising to anyone who thinks there is a "safe" level of intoxication that won't affect driving. A BAC measurement of 0.01, the lowest level recorded in the data studied, represents about half a 12-oz. can of beer for the average adult man. And yet drivers with a 0.01 BAC were 46 percent more likely to be held solely responsible for causing a fatal car crash than a driver who'd had nothing to drink. The likelihood of being held culpable for an accident only went up from there, as the BAC of the driver increased.
This recent study is noteworthy because of its very large data set, but previous research conducted over the past fifty years supports its findings that there is no clear line between "too drunk to drive" and "buzzed but okay to drive." The impairment caused by alcohol intoxication is a sliding scale – the more a person drinks, the more dangerous it is for them to get behind the wheel, but any amount of alcohol makes a person a worse driver and more likely to cause a car crash than they were before they had that drink. This correlation holds true for both men and women.
So where does that "magical" 0.08 BAC number come from, if it's not the tipping point into unsafe drunk driving? It's actually somewhat arbitrary, because there needs to be a legal definition for "drunk driving." Back in the 1930s, the legal limit was 0.15, nearly twice the current US limit. It dropped to 0.10 a couple of decades later, and was eventually lowered again to its modern limit. But the US does not have the world's strictest limits on blood alcohol content. In many parts of Europe, the legal driving limit is 0.05, and in Japan and Sweden, it's even lower than that.
Which country has the right idea when it comes to legal limits? According to the research, the safest drivers are the ones with a BAC of 0.00 – no alcohol in their bloodstream at all. Anything beyond that presents an increasing level of impairment and risk, especially (but not exclusively) for people with less experience with alcohol, who display more severe intoxication effects at lower BAC levels. Even then, a reduction in your ability to drive safely begins at a much lower BAC level than it might take for you to "feel drunk."
This is the focus of the NHTSA's recent public awareness campaign to discourage people from thinking that they are safe to drive if they are "only buzzed." Alcohol can interfere with your ability to drive safely even before you've had enough to notice any intoxication, so by the time you feel that buzz, your judgment and driving reflexes are already impaired. Rather than playing guessing games with your BAC and trying to decide if you've "sobered up" enough to get behind the wheel, the safer and smarter choice is to have a designated driver or call for a ride from someone who hasn't been drinking at all. In 2012, there was a death caused by an alcohol-impaired car crash every 51 minutes, on average, or more than 10,000 total. Make sure that no one you know becomes a statistic in the next study on drunk driving – don't drive buzzed, and stop your friends from driving if they've had a drink.
If you or a family member has been seriously injured and would like a free consultation to discuss your legal options, feel free to call Francis M. Smith, Esq. at 908 233-5800, or contact me online or email me.