Too drunk to drive

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

In the ER, the standard answer to whether a patient has been drinking alcohol is always the same…just a couple. Alternatively, the patient denies the question and demands to know why the doc wants the information and why it has any bearing on that particular hospital visit. The same scenario plays out on the streets when police pull over a drunk driver and ask them if they too have been drinking. Most of the time, these encounters are private affairs and are quickly forgotten, that is, unless you are the president of a large company with international recognition and the field sobriety is caught on tape. (

Alcohol is a nasty drug that has social acceptance. It decreases inhibition, impairs judgment and slows reaction times and those are its positive effects. The negatives are that it is addictive. Alcohol exhibits tolerance and requires more of it to achieve the same effect. It also causes withdrawal symptoms when it is stopped after prolonged usage. The difficult issue with alcohol abuse is that while it damages the body of the person who drinks, it also has collateral damage. Drinking and driving has the ability to kill innocent bystanders and turns a car into a lethal weapon.

Not so long ago, surviving the drive home after a night out on the town was considered a badge of honor to be able to survive the gauntlet of police officers and sheriff’s deputies and to cheat death. Death doesn’t give up easily though. In 2008, there were11,773 people who died in the US in accidents involving a driver with a blood alcohol level greater than 0.08.

In truth 0.08 is not a magic number. It’s an arbitrary standard to define a minimum level of intoxication while driving a car. The number is lower if it’s an 18 wheeler and it’s zero if the vehicle is an airplane. Even the World Anti-Doping Agency, the organization that tries to control drug use in the Olympics, lists alcohol as a banned substance in sports involving guns and flying.

Intoxication occurs with the first drink that is consumed; even at levels as low as 0.02, a brain body disconnect can occur. Increasing the concentration of alcohol in the bloodstream will lead to incapacitation, where the person can no longer care for themselves. That number can vary widely depending on the drinking experience. Remember that because of tolerance a chronic alcohol may appear to function at levels above 0.40, which would be lethal to a novice drinker and may then go through withdrawal at 0.20. The number doesn’t matter; it’s the effect of the drug. But being awake does not equate to being sober or being able to drive a car, walk down the street or make reasonable decisions about who to go home with.

The sadness about the person in the video is that he was allowed to leave a large group of people, get in his car and start driving. Once the threshold of the first drink has been passed, the potential for an error in judgment exists. One drink leads to another and the damage may be done even with “just a couple” because of the generosity of a friendly bartender. It becomes a community responsibility to prevent the person from leaving a gathering while intoxicated. Friends don’t let friends drive dunk…even if he is the boss.

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