We all know the hazards, we all know the results, yet drunk driving occurs regularly, and Rhode Island is no exception. According to statistics from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, on average someone is killed by a drunk driver every 45 minutes. In 2008, an estimated 11,773 people died in drunk-driving related crashes, nationally and in RI, there were 29 deaths.
Now new research may shed light on why some people drink then get behind the wheel. Peter J. Snyder, PhD, vice president of research for Lifespan, just published a paper that looks at the effect of intoxication on reasoning and problem-solving abilities — skills necessary for driving.
Here in Rhode Island, the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration is .08. Snyder says an increase of blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.02 percent doubles the relative risk of a motor vehicle crash among 16- to 20-year old males, and that risk increases to nearly 52 times when the BAC is between 0.08 percent and 0.10 percent, the legal limits in many states. His research studied the impacts of alcohol on a group of college students in a controlled setting , and measured the impact of the alcohol as their BAC went from 0 to .10 and then back down to normal.
The research: Snyder explains that the research uncovered an interesting fact. “The subjective feeling that you are drunk does recover more quickly. This explains why so many individuals feel subjectively that they are able to get into a car and be able to drive and feel safe. But that subjective impression does not mesh with the actual recovery in terms of higher order executive functions.”
In this study, individuals were asked to consume alcoholic drinks over an 8-hour period to bring their BAC up to 0.10 percent and then to return to a normal BAC. Throughout the ascending and descending limbs of the BAC curve they were asked to perform a hidden maze learning test on a touch-screen computer. Under normal conditions without alcohol, healthy young individuals normally would make very few mistakes in the maze — the mistakes are indicative of a failure to follow simple rules that they are taught. The researchers noted that these errors increased dramatically with rising BAC levels, and their level of propensity to break the simple rules of the test did not decline as rapidly as the subjective feeling of drunkenness.
Snyder says, “It’s important to know that most healthy normal young adults show one or none of these “rule break” errors at all. As people become increasingly drunk, we see a very dramatic increase in these errors on the test, and the recovery of the underlying cognitive impairments that lead to these errors is slower, and more closely tied to the actual blood alcohol concentration, than the more rapid reduction in participants’ subjective feeling of drunkenness.” This type of cognitive functioning is important for driving skills and making judgments in terms of traveling through intersections or changing lanes when driving.
So what does this mean? Snyder and the researchers conclude that because the subjective feeling of recovery is more rapid than the actual recovery, this constitutes a partial explanation for why many people drive drunk, and the concept can be used in the context of education and prevention strategies. Snyder concludes, “Allowing individuals to see that their subjective reports of the intensity of intoxication do not correlate with their observed cognitive performance might underscore the real risk with respect to the decision to drive when alcohol impaired. The bottom line is that subjective perception of intoxication is a poor indicator of sobriety and the ability to operate a motor vehicle.”
Has drunk driving impacted you in any way? Do you think this research can help reduce accidents? Share your thoughts!