Emergency Care For You

Alcohol and Driving

Every day, almost 29 people in the United States die in alcohol-impaired vehicle crashes—that's one person every 50 minutes. In 2016, there were 10,497 deaths from alcohol-impaired driving crashes, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Of the 1,233 traffic deaths among children ages 0 to 14 years in 2016, 214 (17%) involved an alcohol-impaired driver.

Emergency physicians see firsthand the tragic consequences of impaired driving andirtually everyone shows impairment at a blood alcohol content (BAC) level of 0.08 percent. Many emergency physicians are actively engaged in public education about alcohol and driving.

How extensive is the problem?

Motor vehicle crashes produce an enormous burden for society in terms of suffering, disability, death and costs. In addition to lives lost and irreparably altered, these types of accidents are projected to cost $44 billion annually. The effects of driving while impaired can be exacerbated by fatigue, speed, medications, and other driving risk factors.

How much can an average person drink and still drive safely?

No safe level of alcohol can be consumed prior to driving. Impairment begins as soon as alcohol can be detected in the blood stream, which can happen after even one drink. Attention, task tracking, peripheral vision, and reaction time are affected variably from individual to individual. Therefore, it is less safe to drive with any level of blood alcohol than with none. Persons with a 0.08 level show impairment in terms of critical driving tasks, including braking, steering, lane changing, making judgments, and maintaining attention.

Isn't it the problem drinker who causes most of the traffic crashes while driving under the influence?

Anyone who drinks and drives is a problem drinker. Most at risk for exhibiting impairment are young people whose inexperience puts them at greater risk for traffic crashes at any level of blood alcohol.

What amount of alcohol results in 0.08 BAC?

The average 137-pound female would need three drinks on an empty stomach, consumed consecutively, to reach a 0.08 BAC level. A 170-pound male would have to consume more than four drinks within a 1-hour period on an empty stomach to reach that level. While certainly less safe than not consuming alcohol at all, two beers, two 4-ounce glasses of wine, or two ounces of distilled spirits consumed over 2 hours are unlikely to render the average person illegal to drive.

Why is zero tolerance for people under 21 important?

It is illegal to consume alcohol for those under age 21 in the United States. Therefore, zero tolerance laws make it illegal for drivers under age 21 to drive with any measurable amount of alcohol in their systems. Furthermore, teenagers generally have lower tolerances for alcohol than adults. Therefore, their driving performance suffers more at lower levels of alcohol. Combined with other risk-taking behaviors exhibited by this age group, such as speeding and aggressive driving, alcohol raises the risk of crashes significantly. All 50 states and the District of Columbia have zero tolerance laws for youth.
How many states have BAC laws?

Currently, every state and the District of Columbia had 0.08 BAC laws in effect, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Congress has required states to adopt 0.08 BAC laws or lose a portion of federal aid highway construction funds.As of August 2008, every state and the District of Columbia had 0.08 BAC laws in effect, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Congress has required states to adopt 0.08 BAC laws or lose a portion of federal aid highway construction funds.

For additional information on this topic, visit:

ACEP Policy Statement on Distracted and Impaired Driving

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Mothers Against Drunk Driving

Source:  National Highway Traffic Safety Administration