This week, the holiday season officially kicks off and lasts through the New Year.
"The holidays usually mean more parties and travel as many people celebrate with their friends and family," explained Lauren Fredrickson, M.D., Medical Director of Salem Community Hospital's Emergency Department. "The period between Thanksgiving and the end of the New Year's weekend is also known as 'DUI Season,' since arrests for driving under the influence are at a high point for the year. In addition, about two-thirds of DUI convictions are for first time offenders."
According to the Ohio Department of Public Safety, November and December have higher numbers of automobile crashes involving alcohol. Federal traffic safety data also shows that the daily death toll from drunk driving during the holiday season is significantly greater than the rest of the year.
"The holiday season is one of the busiest on our nation's roadways and also one of the most dangerous due to the high incidence of drug and alcohol-related traffic fatalities," advised Dr. Fredrickson. "The festive nature of the holiday season provides people with more temptations to drink alcohol that could potentially lead to a dangerous driving situation. When someone first consumes alcohol, it acts as a stimulant and may temporarily make the person feel upbeat and excited. However, inhibitions and judgment are soon affected, increasing the individual's risk of making reckless driving decisions behind the wheel. As more alcohol is consumed, a person's motor skills and reaction time begin to suffer," she added. "His or her behavior becomes poorly controlled, which can hinder driving ability even further. Continued drinking can lead to the slurred speech and loss of coordination and balance that most people associate with being 'drunk.' At higher levels, alcohol acts as a depressant, which causes people to become sleepy and sometimes pass out."
Accidents involving alcohol are about five times more likely to occur at night. "During a night of drinking, it's easy to misjudge alcohol's ongoing effects," Dr. Fredrickson continued. "The skills and coordination needed for driving are compromised long before the obvious signs of intoxication are visible. Many people mistakenly believe that they can drive safely once they stop drinking and have a strong cup of coffee. The truth is that alcohol continues to affect the body long after the last drink has been downed. Even after someone stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestine continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate through the body. As a result, judgment and coordination can be impaired for hours following a person's last drink.
- Approximately 30 percent of Americans will be involved in an accident involving alcohol.
(Source: National Institutes of Health- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism)
"Driving home late at night is especially dangerous because a person's natural drowsiness is increased by the sedative effects of alcohol, which places them at a much greater risk of nodding off or losing attention behind the wheel. The use of caffeine may help relieve some of the drowsiness, but it doesn't counteract the effect of alcohol on decision-making or coordination. The body needs time to metabolize or breakdown alcohol and even more time to return to its normal functioning."
Remember these facts about alcohol:
- Alcohol's effects are similar even when it comes in different forms; a 12 oz. can of beer has roughly the same amount of alcohol as a 6 oz. glass of wine or a 1.5 oz. shot of whiskey.
- Alcohol takes time to metabolize out of the body and drinking coffee won't speed it up.
- Drinking on an empty stomach will allow alcohol to enter the bloodstream much faster.
"Before you celebrate, designate a sober driver," Dr. Fredrickson concluded. "If you do drink, don't drive, no matter how little alcohol you think you have had. A blood alcohol content of .08 or higher is illegal in all 50 states. Remember that even if you aren't at fault in a collision, if the officer suspects that you have been drinking, you will be presumed to have contributed to the collision or to have been at fault. If you are hosting a party where alcohol will be served, you need to be aware that you can be sued if someone leaves the party and is involved in an alcohol-related collision. To help protect yourself, ensure that all your guests have a designated driver or alternate form of transportation to get them home. If you think someone is about to drive while impaired, take their car keys and make arrangements to get them home safely. Lastly, protect yourself and your passengers by wearing a safety belt at all times when driving."
Lauren Fredrickson, M.D., is the Director of Emergency Medicine at Salem Community Hospital's Emergency Department.