New Year, Old Myths, New Fatalities

Dec. 30, 2010
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more people are likely to die in traffic crashes that involve alcohol during the holidays than at other times of the year.

In fact, statistics show that during Christmas and New Year's, two to three times more people die in alcohol-related crashes than during comparable periods the rest of the year. And 40 percent of traffic fatalities during these holidays involve a driver who is alcohol-impaired, compared to 28 percent for the rest of December.

While many of us are aware of these troubling statistics, myths about drinking and driving persist – myths that could prove fatal. Scientific studies supported by NIAAA provide important information that challenges these widespread, yet incorrect, beliefs about how quickly alcohol affects the body and how long these effects can last.

Fast-Acting, Lasting Effects

Holiday revelers may not recognize that critical driving-related skills and decision-making abilities are diminished long before they show physical signs of intoxication.

Initially, alcohol acts as a stimulant. When you drink, you temporarily may feel upbeat and excited. But don't be fooled. Inhibitions and judgment are soon affected, leading to reckless decisions behind the wheel.

As more alcohol is consumed, reaction time suffers and behavior becomes poorly controlled and sometimes aggressive – further compromising driving abilities. Continued drinking can lead to the slurred speech and loss of balance that we typically associate with being drunk. At higher levels, alcohol acts as a depressant, which causes people to become sleepy and sometimes pass out.

During a night of drinking, it's also easy to misjudge alcohol's lasting effects. Many revelers believe that they can drive safely once they have stopped drinking and had a cup of coffee. The truth is that alcohol continues to affect the brain and body long after the last drink has been downed. Even after someone stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream, impairing judgment and coordination for hours.

Driving home late at night especially is hazardous because natural drowsiness is magnified by the depressant action of alcohol. Driving abilities may even be impaired the next day, when any alcohol remaining in the system – or the headache and disorientation associated with hangovers – contributes to feelings of sluggishness, even though the person no longer feels drunk.

Planning Ahead

Of course, we don't intend to harm anyone when we get behind the wheel during the holiday season. Yet traffic fatalities persist and myths about drinking live on even though scientific studies have documented how alcohol affects the brain and body.

Because individuals are so different, it is difficult to give specific advice about drinking. But certain facts are clear – there's no way to speed up the brain's recovery from alcohol and no way to make good decisions when you are drinking too much, too fast.

So this holiday season, do not underestimate the effects of alcohol. Don't believe you can beat them. If you drink, pace yourself. Know what constitutes a standard drink and have no more than one per hour. Have “drink spacers” by making every other drink a nonalcoholic one.

Finally, make plans to get home safely. Remember that a designated driver is someone who hasn't had any alcohol, not simply the person in your group who drank the least.

Myths and Facts

Myth: You can drive as long as you are not slurring words or acting erratically.
Fact: The coordination needed for driving is compromised long before the signs of intoxication are visible. Plus, the sedative effects of alcohol increase the risk of nodding off or losing attention behind the wheel.

Myth: Drink coffee. Caffeine will sober you up.
Fact: Caffeine may help with drowsiness, but not with the effects of alcohol on decision-making or coordination. The body needs time to metabolize (break down) alcohol and then to return to normal. There are no quick cures – only time will help.

About the Author

Laura Walter

Laura Walter was formerly senior editor of EHS Today. She is a subject matter expert in EHS compliance and government issues and has covered a variety of topics relating to occupational safety and health. Her writing has earned awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), the Trade Association Business Publications International (TABPI) and APEX Awards for Publication Excellence. Her debut novel, Body of Stars (Dutton) was published in 2021.

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