California: Leading the Way in Alcohol Related Traffic Fatalities

Given that it’s Labour Day weekend and all, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on drinking and driving. I hope you all know this, kids, but please: don’t drink and drive. I’ve witnessed firsthand (literally, in the sense of watching a friend crash) the effects of alcohol on driving ability. While different people have different levels of functionality with differing blood alcohol content (BAC) levels, usually it can be considered a bad idea to involve yourself in a complex task (driving, using heavy machinery, plotting world takeover, etc) after consuming alcohol. It also happens to be illegal, but lots of activities of which I am actually supportive also happen to be illegal, so I’m reluctant to cite legal status as a reason for doing (or not doing) anything.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a big drinker, but I’m a fan of the alcohol, especially paired with food glorious food. You certainly won’t find me joining the temperance league anytime soon because I believe that in some cases, the consumption of alcohol is a delightful and harmless (sometimes even beneficial) activity. Others may disagree, or have a physiology that makes the consumption of any alcohol dangerous, and I respect their choice to not consume alcohol. After all, it’s a drug which is far more dangerous, statistically, than many illegal substances. It’s hard to get accurate statistics on, say, marijuana usage and driving, but I’m willing to bet that pot related fatalities are negligible, statistically, when compared with those related to alcohol. Alcohol and cars do not go well together.

No state is a better example of this fact than California, with 4,120 traffic fatalities in 2004, 40% of which were alcohol related, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Even freewheeling Texas was well behind us in terms of numbers, with 3,583 fatalities. Clearly, population is a factor here–in a big state with not many people like Wyoming, one would expect these numbers to be lower and, in fact, they are. But the fact of the matter is that a whole lot of people drive drunk all over this country, and I really wish they wouldn’t, because it’s not just their lives that are being put at risk: it’s my life, and yours.

The majority of alcohol related fatalities are connected with a BAC of .08% or higher, which is over the legal limit. However, a fair number involve a lower BAC, which just goes to show you that the BAC is not a good rule of thumb to use. So many factors are involved both in alcohol consumption and driving that there are no hard and fast rules about how much alcohol is “safe” for a driver. (It’s not just drivers, either–you can be cited for driving under the influence on bicycles, horses, tractors, and any sort of motive transit. Although I believe walking while intoxicated earns you a citation of being a public nuisance.) Obviously, the drinker is not going to be the best judge of their fitness to drive.

The bottom line is that you are more likely to avoid death or serious injury in a motor vehicle if you are not drunk, or being driven by someone who is drunk.

As a result, many law enforcement agencies conduct check points during major holiday weekends, with the intent of intercepting intoxicated drivers. While I am not, in general, a fan of police interference in anything, I am a reluctant supporter of checkpoints because they do save lives. (And in California you get a free calling card, which is pretty awesome. Although no junior ranger badge. I asked and they wouldn’t give me one.)

The holiday season is creeping up on us, like a fratboy on an unsuspecting keg, and many people choose to make alcohol a part of their celebrations. I’m sure that my readers in the health care field can agree with me when I implore all of you to be smart about alcohol.

Almost four years ago, someone whom I cared about very much was killed by a drunk driver early on Thanksgiving morning. His death was a loss for the whole community, and the subsequent escape of his killer from justice was a great tragedy. He did save the lives of four people (and enabled countless others) through organ and tissue donation, which is a small consolation for the life which was cruelly snuffed out that November morning.

Alas, he was neither the first, nor the last, friend I’ve lost to the deadly combination of alcohol and driving.

I highly encourage all of you to act as designated drivers, or to secure a sober driver when you intend to drink. If you’re going to a house party, consider staying there and driving home the next day. If you’re going out on the town, assess the public transit services before picking up your keys.

If you’re hosting, don’t be afraid to be square: confiscate keys, and get assurances from your guests that they have sober designated drivers to take them home. Make space available for people to sleep if you’re serving alcohol: not only are you legally responsible for accidents, but it’s something you have to live with for the rest of your life.

If you see anyone, friend or otherwise, engaging in what seems like a stupid choice, take action. Be firm about drinking and driving, because you might be saving a life, and a lot of heartache.

[drinking and driving]