Study: Are designated drivers sober?

A recent survey looks at designated drivers and whether they really abstain from drinking alcohol.

One message that is often pushed by New York law enforcement and government agencies is that if people are going to drink when they go out, they should use a designated driver. Ideally, the designated driver is someone who agrees not to drink alcohol so that everyone will get home safely after a night out. However, a recent study indicates that this may not be what is really happening.

Surveying bar patrons

The study, published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, was conducted by asking people leaving a bar to take a survey. The bars used in the study were located near a college and researchers chose to approach people on weekends when there would be a football game played at the school. The survey asked people about behaviors related to alcohol, their demographics and if they were a designated driver.

More than 1,000 people participated in the survey and 165 said they were the designated driver for their group. Researchers then used a hand-held breath tester to measure participants' blood alcohol content. The results showed that while 65 percent of the designated drivers' BAC was .00 percent, the others had consumed alcohol. Furthermore, 20 percent of those who were not sober, showed an impairment BAC level of over .05.

Raising questions

While researchers believe that a designated driver must be someone who abstains from drinking entirely, NPR points out that, in practice, many people do not follow that rule. Researchers pointed out that the recent survey, while eye-opening, is limited in some ways. Most participants were male, white college students, which is not reflective of general society.

However, the survey does raise questions about designated drivers. NPR points out that one of the problems is defining what a designated driver is. For example, on American surveys a designated driver may be anyone who's BAC is under the legal limit of .08, or it may be someone who has abstained completely from drinking alcohol. In other parts of the world (and, in practice, even among some people in the U.S.), the least intoxicated person is designated as the driver.

When drivers reach impairment

Alcohol can affect people in different ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a table to show how impairment can occur after just two drinks containing alcohol. At this point, the BAC of a person is probably at .02 percent and the person may experience trouble with engaging in more than one task or tracking something that is moving at a fast speed like another car. If the person drinks another alcoholic drink, the person may have trouble with steering the vehicle or be slower to respond in an emergency situation. At this point the driver's BAC is around .05 percent, which is still under the legal limit.

The bottom line is that alcohol consumption in any amount can affect a person's ability to drive safely - as well as their ability to accurately judge their own level of intoxication. Therefore, the wisest course of action is for designated drivers to avoid drinking at all. Accidents involving alcohol can result in serious injuries that may impact everyone involved for the rest of their lives. Therefore, people may find it helpful to discuss their rights with an experienced injury attorney.