“Drinking then Driving” Isn’t the Same as Drunk Driving.

Michael GrossmanSeptember 27, 2017 5 minutes

Time and again, I've talked about how dangerous drivers can be when they've had too much to drink. To make matters worse, some bars and restaurants are willing to help them reach that perilous state, ignoring dram shop laws. It's an insidious problem and it seems to get worse every year. Of course we'd never condone intoxicated driving, but I do want to point out that we're not insisting on a strict teetotaling lifestyle either.

An Irish politician recently spoke about this very thing, saying that a drink or two isn't going to get anyone blotto enough to cause an accident if they drive. While we don't usually deal with international goings-on here, the point he made applies pretty much everywhere and merits a little further discussion.

Irish Official: A Few Drinks 'Round the Pub is Fine

The comments in question came during a news interview with Danny Healy-Rae, a representative of Dáil Éireann, the lower house of Irish Parliament. The discussion actually related to research done by the Irish police (An Garda Síochána) claiming that 11% of the nation's fatal crashes involving alcohol actually occur between 7am and 11am. An awareness campaign was launched to inform citizens that they might still be too drunk to drive the morning after a night of revelry. Hung-over driving still presents a hazard as the body may not yet have broken down all the alcohol funneled into it the evening before. Ireland's Transport Minister Shane Ross encouraged those who started the day still drunk to "leave the car at home and make alternative arrangements."

11% is a serious statistic, and it makes sense that the government would want to drive down those fatalities if possible. The aptly-named "Morning After" campaign will run for about three weeks and aims to reach Irish citizens primarily through radio advertisements.

While not disagreeing specifically with Minister Ross's point, Healy-Rae spoke to news sources and said he thinks the campaign is overblowing the risks of drinking sensibly, discouraging citizens from having a responsible nightcap if they so choose. He stated his firm belief that a few drinks aren't enough to put anyone at risk behind the wheel:

"Until the day I die, I don't believe that anyone that has had just two or three glasses [of beer] - a pint and a half - that they're a liability or a danger on the road."

His personal opinion notwithstanding, the science behind drunkenness suggests he's right.

Looking at the Facts

Healy-Rae said he thinks a pint and a half (24 fluid oz in the U.S.) isn't enough to create a risk of drunk driving, and I happen to agree--even if all 24 ounces are consumed in an hour. No matter where the discussion originated, though, the issue is really just "Can I have a couple of drinks and still hit the road safely?" and that's an important question to consider.

Drunk driving involves the excessive consumption of alcohol, to the point where one's blood-alcohol content (BAC) exceeds .08 percent, by which time motor skills and judgment are impaired to the point of additional risk on the road. Most people respect the laws about intoxicated driving and don't violate them; after all, they can still have fun without getting dangerously pickled--there's a comfortable margin between "sober as a judge" and "drunk as a lord." When done right, drinking is an enjoyable and social activity; all that the law asks is that one does it reasonably, to ensure individual and public safety.

If the law stated that any amount of alcohol in a driver's system should be illegal, it wouldn't cite a maximum allowed threshold--it'd just be zero. One's blood would need to be entirely void of alcohol--a 0.0% BAC--before operating a vehicle. That means no beer, no liquor, no wine, not even a strong mouthwash would be acceptable in a field test. As it is, the U.S. doesn't consider a driver intoxicated until they reach that .08%, meaning that legally most reasonable people can enjoy a couple of drinks before they need to slow down. Everybody's different, though, and their tolerances vary similarly depending on several factors.

The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) charted how men and women of various weights cope with certain amounts of alcohol before they are considered legally intoxicated:

The chart bases its numbers on 12oz beers with 4.5% ABV, small (5oz) glasses of wine with 12% ABV, or shots (1.5 oz) of 80 proof (40% ABV) liquor. At my current weight I could probably manage two to three of those drinks in an hour and still be legally okay to drive. I wouldn't want to overshoot that, though; just two of the higher-ABV beers I tend to favor would make me bump up against that .08 maximum--possibly even exceed it--so I'd definitely want to pace myself. As for going beyond my limits--deep into that red zone--I make it a point not to party with the kind of people crazy enough to have ten drinks in a single hour. That's far past the point when drinking is more punishment than fun. I also don't need the chart to tell me that those hot messes have NO business behind the wheel at any point in an evening. I'm fairly sure many of them wouldn't be able to stand, let alone reliably drive.

There's a Difference Between Responsible Drinking and Drunk Driving

What I'm really getting at is that we should remember to distinguish between responsible drinking and dangerous intoxication. Alcohol's consumption doesn't always have to translate to its abuse. The Irish Transportation Ministry's research suggests their people party extremely hard, and it costs them more lives than it needs to, but Danny Healy-Rae isn't wrong when he says a reasonable amount of alcohol doesn't prohibit someone from heading home after a little time at the pub. If this position strikes anyone as irresponsible, keep in mind that the law itself allows for some drinking before things get too dangerous to permit. The law doesn't exist to prohibit safe fun; it exists to protect the public from dangerous and negligent behavior.

It's a matter of showing responsibility--both by the person drinking and the establishment serving him:

  • The patron needs to recognize his limitations and quit while he's ahead, or if he's determined to have a rough morning, he needs to do what the Irish Transportation Ministry suggests and "make other arrangements." What matters is that he shouldn't be drunkenly piloting a vehicle, because his brain and body likely aren't up to the task. He might make it home safely, but it's just as possible that he'll drift out of his lane at 60mph and cause irreversible damage to himself or another driver.
  • The business serving the patron alcohol needs to cut him off well before he's into dangerous territory. Dram shop laws are designed to stop businesses from over-serving obviously intoxicated people. A slurring, fall-down-drunk barfly doesn't need another shot of whiskey before tottering out the door, and bars that are willing to turn a blind eye to the danger they're helping to create deserve to be punished by the law for their reckless enabling.

With these rules in mind, there's no reason someone can't have a little safe fun at a bar. Except for extremely petite folks, a couple of drinks in an hour isn't terribly dangerous, especially if there's time after that for them to metabolize. Danny Healy-Rae isn't suggesting that rapidly downing a row of Jägerbombs is a safe precursor to driving; he's only saying that taken in moderation and with respect for one's limitations, not every outing must end in tragedy. For Texans, I suggest the following: Be honest with yourself about what you can safely handle, and if you don't know then follow the TABC guidelines. Armed with that knowledge, drink only what your tolerance allows, and if you do go overboard, don't drive. Other than that, enjoy your evening and sláinte.