The Dangers of Drunk Driving

by Grant Mercer, Winner of our 2016 Scholarship Contest

Just after midnight, the wail of the sirens jarred me from a deep sleep. I lay in bed groggily listening to them until they faded away, not thinking much about their meaning. The next morning as I left for school, a few yards from the entrance of my neighborhood, I saw the shattered tree and the metal wreckage scattered by the roadside. I found out later that morning that a car driven by a sixteen-year-old student – the star of the high school football team – had crossed the center line, bringing the full force of its 60 mph speed onto a car in the oncoming lane. The head-on impact drove both cars into the trees lining the road. The driver of the other car, coming home from a late night shift, counted himself lucky, having escaped only with a broken leg. The high school boy did not share that fate: his life ended in the collision. After an evening spent at a friend’s house drinking beer and playing video games, he had boasted to his buddies that he was “man enough” to handle a few beers and could drive himself home.

Toxicology reports would later show that his blood alcohol content (BAC) was a staggering 0.13, the equivalent of six drinks downed during the four hours he spent at his friend’s house. He made it to within half-a-mile of his home before the crash ended his life.

Drunk driving claims the lives of nearly 30 Americans every single day, over 10,000 lives lost in a year ‘s time. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), one-third of all traffic-related deaths are due to an intoxicated driver while one in three of Americans will be involved in a drunk driving incident, either as the victim or as the cause, at some point in their lives. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, with a full 25% of those crashes caused by drinking and driving.

Approximately 68% of those killed in drunk driving accidents were drivers knowingly taking the wheel while intoxicated , noted the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission.

However, innocent victims, those people riding in the passenger seat or unlucky enough to be driving the same route, account for 32% of these liquor-fueled fatalities. About 10% of all car passengers had ridden with an inebriated driver at least once in the past year, essentially playing Russian roulette that they would arrive safely at their destination. In 2014, over 1.1 million arrests were made for driving under the influence. Scarily though, that number represents only one percent of the 121 million self-reported cases of alcohol-impaired driving in the United States every year. With that level of impaired driving, every quick trip to the store or drive to work could include an encounter with a drunk driver. According to the FBI, binge drinkers commit nearly 85% of all DUI’s with the average drunk driver getting behind the wheel around 80 times before an arrest is ever made. Too many people are lulled into thinking they can drive “buzzed” because they have gotten away with it so many times.

Far too many people mistakenly believe that hot coffee or a cold shower can alleviate the effects of too many drinks, but this is simply not true. According to the American Medical Association, only time will lower a person’s BAC level. It takes one hour to reduce a person’s BAC by .015. At that rate, it would take over five hours for a legally intoxicated (.08) person to once again have an alcohol-free blood stream. The only way to get alcohol out of the bloodstream is quite simply to wait.

Since 2004, it has been illegal in all 50 states to drive with a BAC greater that .08, the equivalent of three drinks downed by a 160-pound person. This is a far more generous allowance than the standards set by many other countries. Sweden has a BAC of .02 and Japan has a BAC of .03 while Austria, Denmark, and Belgium top most European countries with a BAC of .05. While a BAC of .08 is deemed legally intoxicated, even one drink can impair a driver’s ability. That one beer or glass of wine can reduce a driver’s reaction time by 25% and hinder the driver’s ability to comprehend road signs and conditions by 15%, according to a National Institute of Health 2013 analysis that studied nearly 600,000 car crashes from 1994 to 2011. Drivers with a BAC of .01, the lowest amount measurable by a breathalyzer, were 46% more likely to run red lights or drive in the wrong lane, resulting in fatalities. That BAC is equal to about half a bottle of beer for the average size man. The researchers noted that “even if you’re not aware of it, you’re impaired after one drink.” They concluded that having a legal intoxication level of .08 sends the message that one or two drinks is complete safe, while in reality even small amounts of alcohol can dramatically increase the chances of a fatal car crash.

While the loss of life is indeed the major danger rising from intoxicated drivers, there are other costs, as well. The cost of a first offense DUI arrest can reach $10,000. Some of these costs include bail ($2,000), legal fees ($2,500), fines ($1,000), and impound cost ($1,000). The punishment for drinking and driving does not end in the courtroom. After a DUI arrest, car insurance premiums can be up to three to five times higher, in many states for up to ten years. Even one DUI arrest can categorize a driver as high-risk. In Georgia, legal penalties range from jail time of 24 hours for a first offense to up to five years for a fourth offense, along with fines ranging from $300 to $5,000. In addition, a DUI in Georgia carries a driver ‘s suspension from up to one year from a first offense to indefinitely for a repeat offender. That is a strong price to pay when buying a soft drink for your designated driver or calling an Uber is so much cheaper.

Drinking and driving can destroy careers because many professions require the reporting of DUI arrests. For example, physicians and other medical professionals must report any DUI arrests to their medical board. Failure to do so may result in their medical licenses being temporarily revoked while multiple offenses may lead to a permanent revocation. A DUI for anyone whose job requires driving a company vehicle or operating heavy equipment, such as delivery drivers, mail truck drivers, and construction workers, may lead them straight to the unemployment line. Those tempted to drink and drive should consider whether or not that drink is worth losing a regular paycheck.

Excessive drinking in college, considered by many to be a treasured collegiate rite, escalates to another level when an inebriated college student slides behind the wheel. For example at the University of Georgia, a DUI arrest is considered a Level II offense, subject to a temporary or even permanent suspension from the college along with the forfeiture of all money paid for tuition and room and board, loss of all future internship and study abroad opportunities, and possible changes in immigration status. According to the UGA Code of Conduct, it is the student’s responsibility to self-report any drinking arrests. However, if the student should somehow “forget” to report these violations, that is no problem. Every month, the University compares a list of arrests in Athens-Clarke County and a few surrounding counties to its student roster. The University officials will indeed discover the arrest. A DUI offense, endangering not only other UGA students, but also innocent townspeople , will not go unnoticed or unpunished.

The morning after I passed by the remains of the accident, I arrived at school to discover that the high school student killed in the car wreck was the brother of a boy in my history class. For nearly two weeks, his seat stayed empty. When at last he came back to school, a few people offered their condolences, but most hung back, not knowing quite what to say. The brother, always ready with a joke to amuse the class, now sat quietly, never seeming to quite focus on the teacher’s lessons or his friends’ chatter. A piece of him had died, just as surely as if he had been riding alongside his brother, on that cold January night.

Today, nearly five years later, a weathered white cross stands nestled among the trees lining the side of the road. Faded teddy bears and worn football jerseys mix with fresh bouquets of flowers and newly-painted signs of condolence, all grieving a loss just as raw today as it was the night it happened. The pain from the consequences of drunk driving never goes away, the memory of those killed or maimed by an intoxicated driver’s selfish actions always just a thought away.

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