Tipsy Driving Is Dangerous, Too

Tipsy Driving Is Dangerous, Too

“Room for Debate,” The New York Times, 16 May 2013

“Everyone metabolizes alcohol at different rates.”

This is the common rejoinder whenever scientists start debating how much alcohol must be consumed for someone to reach a blood alcohol level that negatively affects a driver’s brain. It is worth revisiting this statement, given the recent call by the National Transportation Safety Board to lower the legal blood limit from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent.

Some people may need fewer drinks to get to 0.05 than others, but that’s still a level at which behavior is impaired.

Here is an example. When writing “One for the Road,” my history of drunken driving, I did an experiment in which I drank alcohol within an allotted amount of time on an empty stomach, monitored my blood alcohol level with a home Breathalyzer and asked my wife to observe my conduct. I’m an average-sized man.

In my case, it took three shots of liquor (equal to three glasses of wine or three beers) in one hour to reach 0.05 percent. I felt giddy and mildly buzzed. My wife corroborated this, calling me “even more annoying than usual.” Studies for decades have shown that drivers with blood alcohol levels of 0.05 percent have slower reflexes and poor concentration.

The point is that I had to work hard just to get to 0.05 percent, which is legal. I was not “socially drinking,” which usually means having a couple of glasses of alcohol during a several-hour meal. What I was doing was closer to binge drinking.

This is where the critics will jump in, saying I am not representative and that a tiny woman who metabolizes alcohol slowly might get to 0.05 percent by having two drinks during a long meal. Thus, a 0.05 percent law would deprive her of her right to have an evening of social drinking.

To that, I say “tough luck.” Have one fewer drink, rest for an hour or call a cab. The right we should be preserving is to be able to drive without having buzzed drivers running a red light and crashing into us, even if most of them will not do so. The right to socially drink and then drive is much less compelling.

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