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What are the Consequences of Drinking and Driving?

Last Updated: November 3, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Drinking and driving puts you at greater risk for injury or death in a car accident, but there are several ways to keep yourself from driving under the influence.

When people misuse alcohol, they may find themselves drinking and driving. The consequences of drunk driving can be severe, especially when someone is heavily impaired by alcohol. Learning about the dangers of drinking and driving can keep you and others safe.

What Is Drunk Driving (DUI)?

Put simply, drunk driving means driving while impaired by alcohol. Many people describe drunk driving as driving under the influence (DUI), but it can also be called driving while intoxicated (DWI). Drunk driving is usually defined according to legal limits for blood alcohol content (BAC) when driving. In every state but Utah, where the BAC limit is .05, drunk driving is defined as having a BAC of .08 or above.

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Dangers of Drinking and Driving

Drunk driving is illegal because it’s dangerous. In 2020, there were nearly 12,000 deaths from crashes related to drunk driving. The consequences of drunk driving arise from the many impacts alcohol has on the brain and motor functioning.

Slow Reaction Time

Alcohol intoxication results in slowed reaction time, which increases the risk of an accident. If a driver in front of you hits their brakes or another vehicle pulls out in front of you, you may not react quickly enough to avoid an accident. With even moderate alcohol consumption, cognitive functioning is impaired, delaying perception and reaction to things in the environment.

Impaired Hand-Eye Coordination

Hand-eye coordination is necessary for driving safely because your eyes must perceive a stimulus, such as a bend in the road, and then your hands must react by turning the wheel. Even within the legal limit, alcohol impairs hand-eye coordination.

Poor Judgment

Alcohol also interferes with judgment, so you may not make the most rational decisions while under the influence. For instance, you may disregard the speed limit or take risks you normally wouldn’t, making an accident more likely.

Decreased Vision

Finally, alcohol impairs your visual processing abilities, including your ability to track a moving target and focus your eyes on objects. This can make it difficult to judge the distance between you and other cars on the road and interfere with your ability to detect objects in your periphery. These impairments in visual functioning can lead to an accident.

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Drunk Driving Statistics

Statistics on drinking and driving show just how dangerous impaired driving can be. In addition to the nearly 12,000 fatalities from drunk driving in 2020, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported the following drunk driving statistics:

  • Between 2019 and 2020, deaths from drunk driving increased by 14.3%.
  • On average, one death from drunk driving occurs every 45 minutes.
  • Deaths from automobile crashes related to drunk driving are most likely among those aged 21–34.
  • Men are four times as likely as women to be involved in drinking and driving.
  • 21% of traffic-related deaths involving children aged 14 and under are due to drinking and driving.
  • Fatal crashes from drunk driving are over three times as likely at night than during the day.

Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC) Effects

The risks of drinking and driving increase as BAC rises, but driving can be dangerous even with a relatively low BAC. The effects of drunk driving can happen at various blood alcohol levels.

.02

While the legal limit in most states is a BAC of .08, the reality is that impairment begins before a person reaches this limit. At a BAC of .02, a person feels relaxed and has some loss of judgment. Based upon the physiological effects of alcohol at this level, a person with a BAC of .02 may have difficulty dividing their attention between tasks. So, something as simple as conversing with a passenger can make it challenging to focus on the road. There is also a decline in visual tracking, which can increase the risk of an accident.

.05

As BAC rises to .05, impairment will also increase. At this point, a person experiences poor judgment and reduced inhibition, and their alertness decreases. They also experience a loss of small muscle control, making it harder for the eyes to focus. These effects make it more difficult to steer and can reduce a person’s response to emergencies, such as a vehicle pulling out in front of them.

.08

At the legal limit of .08 BAC, a person develops difficulty with self-control, reasoning and memory. Muscle coordination also begins to fail at this BAC, which impacts balance, vision, reaction time and hearing. These impairments can make it difficult to maintain proper driving speed, visually perceive what is happening in the environment and detect traffic signals.

.10

At a BAC of .10, a person’s reaction time is noticeably impaired, and they experience poor coordination, slurred speech and slowed thinking. Driving is growing increasingly dangerous at this point because impairment from alcohol makes it difficult to apply brakes when needed and stay in the appropriate lane.

.15

Once BAC reaches .15, driving ability is incredibly compromised. At this BAC, a person may vomit from alcohol intoxication and experience major loss of balance and muscle control. These physiological reactions make it challenging to maintain control of a vehicle, pay attention to the road and process incoming visual and auditory information.

Preventing Drunk Driving

Given the dangers associated with driving under the influence, taking steps to prevent drunk driving is imperative. If you consume alcohol, the following strategies allow you to keep yourself and others safe from drinking and driving.

Find a Designated Driver

If you’re going out with friends, having a designated driver can keep everyone safe. If you choose this method, it’s important to select a designated driver before the night begins — not after the group is already out and about. The designated driver should agree in advance to remain sober and available to drive everyone home at the end of the night.

Use Rideshare Services

A rideshare program like Lyft is also a viable option if you’d like to get home safely. Arrange a ride in advance so a sober driver is ready to take you home. This option may come with an added cost, but it’s much less than the price of the consequences that could come from drunk driving.

Stay the Night

When you’ve overindulged at a friend or family member’s house, staying the night is a better option than drunk driving. You might even consider asking in advance if staying the night is an option. This can also be beneficial at out-of-town events like weddings or other celebrations. Booking a hotel room at the venue saves you from potentially driving home under the influence.

Limit Alcohol Intake

Simply limiting your alcohol intake is another way to avoid the dangers of drunk driving. If you know driving home will be necessary at the end of the night, sticking to non-alcoholic beverages is the best option. If you do choose to drink, you might consider limiting yourself to just a single beverage, then switching to water. Keep in mind that even a low BAC can lead to impaired driving abilities.

Seek Help for Alcohol Addiction

Drunk driving is not only illegal — it’s dangerous. A night of drinking and driving could result in legal trouble or, even worse, a fatal accident. If you have found yourself drunk driving, you may have an alcohol use disorder. In fact, placing yourself in dangerous situations, like drunk driving, is a symptom of an alcohol use disorder.

If you’ve tried to stop drinking but are unable to do so, even when it places you in danger, it’s likely time to seek treatment for alcohol addiction. A treatment program can help you overcome the effects of alcohol misuse, including negative consequences like drinking and driving.

For those seeking treatment for alcohol addiction, The Recovery Village Kansas City offers a comprehensive range of treatment options, including medical detox, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), inpatient rehab, partial hospitalization programming and intensive outpatient services. We provide individualized treatment plans that meet each patient’s unique needs. Contact us today to learn more or get started.

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Sources

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Drunk Driving”>.” Accessed March 16, 2023. 

 

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “Alcohol-Impaired Driving”>.” April 2022. Accessed March 16, 2023.

 

Hernández,Oscar; Vogel-Sprott, Muriel; Huchín-Ramirez, Teresita; & Aké-Estrada, Fernando. “Acute dose of alcohol affects cognitive […]nsory systems.” Psychopharmacology, 2006. Accessed March 16, 2023.

 

Marple-Horvat, Dilwyn, et al. “Alcohol Badly Affects Eye Movements Link[…] Driving.” Neuropsychopharmacology, 2008. Accessed March 16, 2023.

 

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.”>[…]Use Disorder.” April 2021. Accessed March 16, 2023.