NEWBERRY — During the time before 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 with 28 percent for the rest of December.
Although many of us are aware of these troubling statistics, myths persist about drinking and driving — such as how quickly alcohol affects the body and how long these effects can last.
Effects begin quickly
Holiday revelers may not recognize that critical driving-related skills and decision-making abilities are diminished long there are physical signs of intoxication.
Initially, alcohol acts as a stimulant, and people who drink may temporarily feel upbeat and excited. But they shouldn’t be fooled. Alcohol soon affects inhibitions and judgment, 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 the drinker to become sleepy and sometimes pass out.
After drinking stops
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 stop drinking and have a cup of coffee. Caffeine may help with drowsiness, but not with the effects of alcohol on decision-making or coordination.
The truth is that even after someone stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continue to enter the bloodstream for hours. Driving home late at night is especially hazardous, because the depressant action of alcohol magnifies a person’s natural drowsiness. The body needs time to metabolize (break down) alcohol and then to return to normal. There are no quick cures — only time will help.
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.
Celebrating? Plan ahead
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, don’t underestimate the effects of alcohol. Don’t believe you can beat them. If you choose to drink, here are some tips to keep in mind:
— Pace yourself. Know what constitutes a standard drink, and have no more than one per hour.
— Have “drink spacers” — make every other drink a nonalcoholic one.
— 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.
SOURCE: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism