Americans cherish their holiday weekends to relax, party and spend time with friends and family. But according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and AAA, an average of 1,022 people – more than 10 per day – die during the ‘100 deadliest days’ of summer in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.
Holidays such as Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas and others are a time when many parents and grandparents take off with children and grandchildren for some terrific down time.
We are reminded of an incident some years back when we attended a function celebrating a milestone for a young person. As we prepared to leave we were surrounded by a gaggle of teens asking us to please drive them home. Looking around we saw there were more than we would normally take.
The kids pleaded with us and said the man who drove them to the function was falling down drunk. The parents who entrusted their children to him didn’t realize he was an alcoholic. Calling the parents to come for them wasn’t an option because of the time it would take. We had kids sitting on each other’s laps and crowded together. Fortunately an SUV has more room than a sedan.
That incident gave us a greatly increased awareness of drunk driving…even partaking of only a drink or two and then getting behind the wheel. The time-honored “designated driver” does not always work because some people simply refuse to give up their keys. In the case above, the children had more common sense than the alcoholic driver their parents had entrusted them to.
In a time of increased awareness about the dangers of driving over the legal limit of alcohol, we like to think that we, as a culture, are being more thoughtful and not getting into a car when we are drunk. The statistics don’t match that assertion.
Additionally, the truth is that you don’t even have to be intoxicated at the “legal limit” of .08 to be impaired and a dangerous driver. We know that alcohol, any amount of alcohol, negatively affects the Central Nervous System; this includes impairment of vision, lack of muscular coordination and lengthened reaction time. A National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration chart shows that even a person with .05 BAC experiences “reduced coordination, reduced ability to track moving objects, difficulty steering, (and) reduced response to emergency driving situations.” Most importantly, alcohol also impairs a person’s judgment and removes inhibitions.
Put in real terms, a 180-pound man might consume four beers in one hour and have a BAC of .073-legal to drive under today’s .08 threshold. A 140-pound woman who has had three glasses of wine in two hours will have a BAC of .063 It’s also important to note that these BAC numbers don’t factor in intervening variables, such as how tired a person is or how much they’ve eaten, both of which affect the impact of the alcohol in a person’s system. In both these scenarios, the driver poses a threat to themselves and others on the road.
So in looking at how we as a culture help eliminate the high rate of traffic fatalities — we should look at the dangers of “buzzed” driving.
As a clinician and academic who specializes in the treatment of addiction, in an addiction treatment residence at the Dunes East Hampton, Dr. Nicholas Kardaras does not advocate a draconian zero-tolerance approach to alcohol and substance use. However, experience has shown that public policy can and has affected public health. We know that when the legal drinking age was raised by federal decree in 1984, highway fatalities were significantly reduced. The NHTSA estimates that over 25,000 lives were saved through 2008, almost a thousand lives a year.
There are those who currently advocate for lowering the legal limit from .08 to .05 or lower. In a recent post from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it is stated that early July is the peak of summer alcohol-related traffic deaths. In 2014, 164 people were killed in crashes involving a driver with a Blood Alcohol Content of .08 or higher.
Will lowering the BAC threshold actually affect people’s behavior? For those with a drinking problem, probably not. But for recreational drinkers who might plan their evening around a limited number of drinks, the answer is yes.
The NTSB also stressed that impairment begins long before a person’s BAC reaches .08 as it begins with the first drink. By the time a person has a BAC of .08, the risk of them being in an accident is double that of a sober driver’s. It has been on the radar to move the legal BAC to a 0.05 limit, it is also mostly about forcing people to plan safe transportation before any consumption of alcohol.
But while this debate rages on about lowering the legal limit and while we are in “party” season, there is something we can do. We can remain aware that any amount of alcohol causes impairment and that buzzed driving could have fatal results too.
And for those who find themselves using alcohol as a way to deal with stress, neglecting responsibilities because of drinking, drinking in dangerous situations and even having legal issues because of their drinking, know that there is help readily available to you.
Information for this article is from an interview with Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, Ph.D., LCSW is an addictions specialist and Executive Director of the Dunes, a holistic mind-body rehab center in Easthampton, N.Y.
Bob & Sandy Nesoff are members, American Society of Journalists and authors, North American Travel Journalists Association