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Driving Under the Influence (DUI): Definition and Consequences

Published:
June 20, 2023
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15 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
June 20, 2023
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15 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
June 20, 2023
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
June 20, 2023
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15 min read
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Reframe Content Team
June 20, 2023
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15 min read

We've all heard "Don't drink and drive," but do we really understand why? Sure, it's dangerous and makes you prone to accidents, but what's the science behind it? And why does alcohol cause injuries to be worse in crashes? Today, we're out to explore the world of alcohol, our brain, and the very real consequences of driving under the influence.

First, let’s define driving under the influence and discuss why it is so dangerous. We can then dive into the consequences that we can expect if it happens — though hopefully that last bit will remain hypothetical!

Driving Under the Influence: Definition

A man drinking from a bottle while driving a car

First things first: what is the definition of a DUI? This term is commonly used to describe the act of operating a motor vehicle while impaired by alcohol or other drugs — including those prescribed by a doctor — to a level that prevents us from doing so safely. Laws and penalties for DUIs vary by location, but it’s usually considered to be a serious offense because of the risk of accidents and harm to both the driver and others. The term DWI — “driving while impaired” or “driving while intoxicated” — has a similar meaning, and the two are sometimes used interchangeably.

Drunk Brain at the Wheel

What does alcohol do to your driving skills and judgment? And why does alcohol cause injuries to be worse in crashes? Alcohol acts as a central nervous system depressant, slowing down the messages between the brain and the body. It also slows down the brain's communication pathways — the neurological highways that allow messages to travel between different parts of the brain. It’s like driving through heavy traffic — the more we drink, the more “traffic jams” occur, disrupting our brain's normal functioning.

These traffic jams slow down our reaction time, which is crucial when we're on the road. A sudden stop from the car in front of us, a pedestrian darting across the street, a red light — all of these situations require us to respond quickly. But when we've been drinking, our response time slows down. As a result, it takes longer for us to react to sudden changes on the road and we become prone to accidents.

Additionally, alcohol messes with our cerebellum, the part of our brain that coordinates voluntary movements. It's our personal choreographer, making sure we walk in a straight line or turn the steering wheel smoothly. With alcohol in the system, our cerebellum is compromised, leading to clumsier movements. That's one reason those white lines seem to wiggle and why corners appear out of nowhere when we’re drunk on the road.

But there's more: alcohol also impairs our attention, making it challenging to multitask. Let's face it, driving is the ultimate multitasking activity, right? We need to steer, maintain speed, check mirrors, react to other drivers, and sing along to “Bohemian Rhapsody” on the radio. Although many of us feel we’re driving on automatic, it’s actually a complex job.

Eyes on the Road

When we're driving, we need our eyes in top shape. But alcohol affects our vision in several ways. First, it slows down the processing of information from our eyes to our brain. Second, it reduces our eyes’ ability to adjust efficiently to light and darkness. Finally, it can cause blurred or double vision. It's like trying to drive in a thick fog, at night, with rain pouring down.

Plus, alcohol plays with our perception. It affects our parietal lobe, which processes sensory information like the spatial position of other cars, or the sudden appearance of a pedestrian. With alcohol on board, our depth perception and peripheral vision are hampered, which is a big no-no for safe driving.

Driving Under the Influence (DUI)

Sobering Stats: Road Deaths Caused by Alcohol

Drunk driving is a crime, and for good reason. According to the WHO, driving under the influence is a factor in almost a third of all road injuries, which are the leading cause of death in the population between the ages of 15 and 29. Even just a few drinks in, drivers are significantly impaired due to their decreased concentration, coordination, and ability to spot risks along the road and are more prone to accidents as a result. Add high speed or poor road conditions, and the risks skyrocket.

According to the CDC, alcohol was the reason behind 178,000 deaths in 2020-2021, averaging 488 deaths every single day! The number has grown in the last few years: in the year 2016-2017, the total was 138,000 deaths per year. That’s a 29% increase in numbers that are already much too high.

Out of the deaths, about 117,000 (two thirds) were caused by chronic conditions stemming from alcohol use. A third (61,000) were attributed from road accidents, alcohol poisoning, and suicides.

Legal Consequences

You've probably heard of Blood Alcohol Concentration (BAC). BAC is the amount of alcohol in our bloodstream. It's measured in grams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, or grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath. In the U.S. a BAC of 0.08% is the legal limit for drivers over 21.

So what happens if someone gets caught driving over the legal limit? The exact consequences vary by location, but here are the basics:

  1. First and foremost, a DUI charge results in the immediate suspension of the driver's license. This suspension can last anywhere from a few months to a year, depending on the jurisdiction, the exact circumstances, and the number of previous offenses. In some cases, the court may order an ignition interlock device to be installed in the offender's vehicle, which prevents the car from starting unless the driver is sober.
  2. Drunk driving can lead to hefty fines. These can range from a few hundred to several thousand dollars, based on the severity of the offense and prior convictions. Some jurisdictions also impose surcharges and fees on top of the base fine.
  3. A DUI conviction often requires mandatory attendance at alcohol education, assessment, or treatment programs. These programs are meant to discourage repeat offenses and help individuals understand the risks associated with drunk driving.
  4. There is a possibility of incarceration, especially for repeat offenders or if the incident led to harm to others. A drunk driving incident causing injury or death is likely to result in a felony charge, carrying a possible prison sentence of several years.
  5. A DUI conviction can lead to a significant increase in auto insurance premiums. These often last for several years following the conviction.

Buzzed Driving Is Drunk Driving

And here’s the catch: simply being under the legal limit doesn’t mean you’re safe. While it might not land you in front of a judge, it’s important to remember there’s really no such thing as a “safe” level of alcohol when it comes to driving, since drinking impairs our driving skills and judgment and makes us prone to accidents.

A study led by sociologist David Phillips from UC San Diego shatters the commonly-held belief that driving buzzed is safer than driving drunk. Phillips and his team investigated 570,731 fatal collisions from 1994 to 2011 using the U.S. Fatality Analysis Reporting System database. The study focused on drivers with a BAC of 0.01 to 0.07 percent — so-called "buzzed drivers” — when evaluating deaths caused by alcohol.

The researchers found that even minimally buzzed drivers — those with a BAC as low as 0.01% — are 46% more likely to be responsible for accidents than sober drivers. They also found a steady increase in blame assigned as BAC increases from 0.01% to 0.24%, rather than a sudden shift at the legal limit of 0.08%.

Phillips suggests the law should reflect the actual risk observed by accident investigators. He supports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's campaign stating "Buzzed driving is drunk driving" and the recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board to reduce the legal BAC limit to 0.05%, a limit already implemented in more than 100 countries worldwide.

Don’t Let Alcohol Do the Talking

What should we do, now that we’ve got all this information? The key is to be proactive and stay in the driver’s seat, metaphorically if not literally.

  1. Designate a sober driver. This simple trick ensures there's a sober person in charge of getting us home safely. No worries about blurred lines, unexpected corners, or overestimating our driving prowess. You know how people will often hand their car keys to a designated driver or trusted friend before they start drinking? That’s a good idea, because being under the influence can create a false sense of security. 



    We’ve all had those "Why did I do that?" moments after a night of drinking. With alcohol inhibiting our brain's frontal lobe (responsible for decision-making and impulse control), we're more likely to take risks we wouldn't usually take when we're sober — like deciding to drive home after a few drinks.
  2. Invest in a breathalyzer. These nifty gadgets have come a long way. They're portable and fairly accurate, providing a measure of our blood alcohol level before we decide to take the wheel.
  3. Embrace the digital age. We're fortunate to live in a world where a ride home is just a tap away. Apps like Uber and Lyft can be lifesavers — literally.

Not Alone

Remember, you’re not alone. We're all navigating this road together, learning, growing, and supporting each other. Every step we take is a victory and every decision not to drink and drive is a reason to celebrate — you are actively helping decrease the number of deaths from alcohol and making yourself less prone to accidents. Keep going, keep growing, and keep being amazing. You got this!

Let's remember, we’re on this journey together. Whatever our goals are, understanding the science behind alcohol and driving is a crucial step. We’re now more equipped to make smart decisions about alcohol, ensuring not only our safety, but the safety of everyone on the road.

Here's to us, understanding our bodies, making informed decisions, and looking out for each other. Safe travels, friends!

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At Reframe, we do science, not stigma. We base our articles on the latest peer-reviewed research in psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral science. We follow the Reframe Content Creation Guidelines, to ensure that we share accurate and actionable information with our readers. This aids them in making informed decisions on their wellness journey.
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