Why alcohol causes so many accidents

PUBLISHED: 15:46 29 December 2001 | UPDATED: 15:22 03 March 2010

THE devastating power alcohol wields over the human brain is all too easy to underestimate.

Stopping a car in an emergency after having only one or two drinks can make the difference between life or death.

THE devastating power alcohol wields over the human brain is all too easy to underestimate.

Stopping a car in an emergency after having only one or two drinks can make the difference between life or death.

The effects of alcohol creep up in the most insidious way, enveloping and dulling the senses often leaving its prey unaware of the extent to which their responses have been incapacitated.

At 30mph per hour the legacy of one or two drinks can mean the length of time it takes for the signal to brake to register in the mind increases the stopping distance by an equivalent of what could be a crucial two metres.

"It's just a fraction of a second but that's enough," said Pc Colin Gray, a Suffolk Police driving instructor who also served as a traffic officer for seven years.

"Your ability to respond is reduced. You tend to think a little bit slower and your physical reactions are slower as well. All that adds up to a big time delay. That's where you can get yourself into trouble.

"The worst case scenario is when it ends up in a collision in which people are seriously injured or killed."

Pc Gray said it was not only the victim and their family who suffer the torment and devastation of a serious accident. What drink drivers never seem to grasp until it is too late is that they and those closest to them also have to cope with the aftermath of a fatality.

It should come as a sobering fact that out of all the crashes during Suffolk Police's Christmas drink drive campaign last year 56 per cent of them involved people who were over the legal alcohol limit.

Government statistics indicate that nationally men aged between 17 and 24 are in the prime age range for those who drink and drive. However in Suffolk experienced officers believe many of those who gamble with livelihoods and lives are the older drivers aged 40 and above.

Despite it becoming more socially unacceptable to get behind the wheel after downing pints of beer or glasses of wine and spirits there is still a hard core of experienced drivers who remain oblivious to the potentially fatal consequences.

Because they come from an era which did not condemn drink drivers their attitudes are so entrenched they believe they are in total control of their reflexes and responses.

They consistently underestimate their tolerance levels, foolishly believing two pints or two units of spirits will ensure they will be sober enough to drive.

But according to officers who are left to clear up the human wreckage caused by drink driving their beliefs and attitudes come from the dark ages.

What people consistently fail to realise is that no one can correctly predict how much or indeed how long alcohol will take to pass into the bloodstream.

Just because someone weighs 15 stone and around 6ft tall it does not follow their metabolism can cope with the effects of drink any better than a person who is nine stone and 5ft tall.

The effects are heavily dependent on not only genetics but also the last time they ate and how much they consumed.

Likewise it is not safe to assume that just because it takes roughly one hour for each unit of alcohol to be cleared from the bloodstream the same standard will apply for them.

Despite the danger they pose many are still oblivious to the danger they present on the roads often trying to fool or blame the police for stopping them.

"We have all got different metabolisms," said Pc Gray. "It depends on how much food you have to eat prior to consuming alcohol and your mood can also affect things.

"I think people have an idea (they are over the limit). There are some of the borderline ones who don't realise it, but the majority of those we do catch realise they are going to be over the limit."

Different drinks affect people in different way. Officers stress the only real way of averting danger is to avoid alcohol completely or allow plenty of time for it to be removed from the bloodstream.

But even surprisingly low levels can impair driving performance, especially to those cavalier enough to try and avoid detection.

"They normally used to say 'I have only had a pint'," said Alec Spall, who spent 16 of his 30 years with Suffolk Police as a traffic officer and is now a police driving instructor.

"You either get them very remorseful or they turn round and blame us. They say you have just cost them their job or their family."


N Drinking and driving occurs across a wide range of age groups but particularly in young men aged 17-24 in both casualties and positive breath tests.

N Provisional figures for 2000 indicate that there were 520 drink-drive related fatalities, 2,530 serious injuries and 14,980 slight injuries.

N Drink-drivers are disqualified for a minimum of 12 months and run the risk of a £5,000 fine and six months in prison.

N Causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs carries maximum penalties of ten years in prison, an unlimited fine and a minimum two-year driving ban.

N The current legal limit is 35 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath; 80 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood; 107 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of urine.

N In 1976 there were nearly 2,000 people killed each year as a result of drink driving.

N An estimated 20,000 lives have been saved in the last 25 years, thanks to the response to drink driving campaigns from the public.

N On average the stopping distance for someone travelling just 30mph is 23 metres if they have not had a drink. Nine of those are taking up in thinking time. However the total stopping distance increases around 25m once alcohol has been consumed

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