Every year, people celebrate the holidays at parties and get-togethers, but too many get behind the wheel of a car after having too much to drink. We all know that the only safe way to drive is alcohol free, yet around one-third of overall driving fatalities, or 10,000 deaths a year, are attributed to alcohol-impaired driving — and 37 percent of all traffic deaths are among those 16 to 20 years old.
Alcohol-related road crashes and fatalities are due to the effect of alcohol on the brain. Three brain regions — the cerebellum, the limbic system and the cerebral cortex — are most affected by alcohol. These regions control coordination, cognition, memory, emotional response and the ability to think, plan and interact with the environment. Impairments in these functions result in poor judgment, emotionality, risk-taking behavior, poor coordination, loss of balance, stumbling, slurred speech and impaired concentration and reaction time.
Significant impairment in brain functions results from rapid increase in blood-alcohol concentration that comes from binge drinking, defined as drinking four or more drinks within two hours for women and five or more drinks for men. Such drinking intensity usually increases the blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 grams per deciliter in the average adult, which is the legal limit of impaired driving, but impairment can be detected at much lower levels than the legal limit.
Increasing the legal age of drinking to 21 and the adoption of Zero Tolerance Laws have significantly reduced fatalities among those in the 16-to-20 age group. Community-level prevention, diagnosis and treatment programs are also important in reducing the risk of drunk driving. For example, up to 70 percent of people who crash under the influence have an alcohol-use disorder, but most never received any treatment. Also, early drinkers, those who begin before the age of 15, have higher rates of alcohol-related disorders and are seven times more likely to have been in an alcohol-related traffic accident.
If you suspect you have a substance abuse problem, seek medical help. By treating the issue, you can lead a healthier life on and off the road. And if you do decide to drink during a party or holiday, have a designated driver, take a cab or call a ride-share service.
Ihsan Salloum, M.D., MPH, is chief of the Division of Substance & Alcohol Abuse at the University of Miami Health System. To learn more, visit umiamihospital.com/specialties/psychiatry.