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Drink Driving and the Morning After!!

Wednesday, December 10th, 2008 Drink Driving and the Morning After!!

With the annual crackdown on drink driving for the Christmas Season, it is relevant to look and evaluate the consequences on an individual level. Sharon Marshall of the Mail (08 02 08) gives a detailed fluent account of her experience of being behind the wheel whilst still under the influence.

Sharon Marshall at 8am is behind her wheel, she is still hung over and marginally missing a young child whilst driving. Through her own admittance she feels relatively alright, somewhat tired and a headache. In the 7 minutes that she drives she has broken the speed limit twice, the rest of the time Marshall says she has to go really slowly on the basis that she cannot keep in control of the vehicle. Moreover, Marshall is carrying out a scientific experiment, there was no real child, she is strapped into a computer simulator at Brunel University with the intention of determining the reactions of drivers that are hung over.

For Jane, the outcomes are terribly real she states “It’s clear I am in no fit state to drive. The terrifying thing is I would have passed a breathalyser test. So would the chap who took the test before me - and he ‘killed’ two pedestrians”.

New research highlights that with hangovers, there is a strong likelihood that drivers are four times more dangerous. The Brunel study - the first of its kind - has confirmed that the effects of alcohol on the body the day after you drink make you a danger on the roads. This has long been suspected. More alarming is the fact that alcohol has been deemed as a factor in 20% of road traffic accidents (RTA). However, this figure does not take into account those still suffering from the night before and hung over.

In a study conducted 28% of drivers have admitted to driving the morning after, even if they suspected they might be over the limit. Here are some facts that are worthy of noting. According to Dr Chris Steele ‘Alcohol makes you dehydrated, it causes your blood sugar levels to fall and, after a night of drinking, you will usually have a night of interrupted sleep.

‘So the morning after you will be experiencing the symptoms of a hangover - excessive thirst, tiredness, that shaky feeling, headache, nausea and a decrease in concentration and attention”.

There is now a fundamental need to comprehend the effects of drink driving. Judging by the recent study at Brunel University carried out by a group of students. Initially they took a driving test whilst sober in the simulator. They then all ordered to get drunk in the student bar. The next morning the test was carried out again. Records indicated that their blood levels were that of a legal level, more specifically under the 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. Here now is the crux of the matter, the students drove on an average of 10mph faster than the recommended 30mph, without realising what they were doing.

As Jane Marshall found, their driving became more erratically swerving from lane to lane. The students also found that it was very difficult to stay within their lanes thus impeding driving further. Finally, they committed twice as many traffic violations. This is a very useful study, however one aspect that causes concern is the fact that this was a one off study. It may have been useful to experiment on volunteers who drink regularly to identify whether there may be different patterns of behaviour. Questionably and more seriously is the issue that with such impaired driving it may be pertinent to suggest that the legal limit is altered.

With reference to Mark Young, senior lecturer in ergonomics at Brunel, said he was surprised at the levels of deterioration. ‘Research has been conducted on the effects of using mobile phones while driving and driving while fatigued, but not the effects of a hangover,’ he said.

‘The students would have all passed a breathalyser test. Perhaps the most worrying evidence is their increase in speed. There would need to be more research, but based on what we’ve found there is real evidence of a link between hangovers and a greater risk of accidents.’

But were these just a bunch of boy-racer students? Or would I be as bad?

He set himself the task. Enjoying a social evening which included 2 glasses of champagne, in contrast his friend drank up to eight pints and some shots. The next morning 9.30am, bearing in mind his last drink at 10.30pm the night before. It takes the body roughly an hour to process a unit of alcohol, so I would have passed a breathalyser test. Young says The car was real - a genuine Jaguar S-type, which is linked to a computer simulator to give the illusion that you are driving. From the interior all you can see is the convex giant screen making it appear as if you are driving down a typical city street. The image includes rear-view and side-view mirrors, a speedometer and rev counter.

As you turn the steering wheel, press the accelerator or brake, the image moves - slowing or speeding up to recreate an incredibly realistic lifesize image of a highway. I felt a lurch in my stomach as I hit the brakes and the road swayed to a halt. I ended up putting on my seatbelt and at one point even apologised to the virtual driver behind me for stopping suddenly. Again a seven minute test was conducted, including children running in front of you, cyclists wobble in front of you and in to you middle lane catching your blind spot and lorries pull out just feet ahead of you. There are traffic lights, stop signs, speed signs, sharp corners and idiots cutting you up or driving at 5mph, straddling the lanes. I thought I’d be fine with all this. I regularly drive in Central London, so am used to tourists stepping off pavements at will, and being cut up by cycle couriers, but I found the test fiendishly hard.

Mark Youngs findings were that he marginally missed a young boy running into the centre of the road. He also liken Marshall and the students found it very difficult to stay within the road lines. As Young explains he was measured in 2 ways. The simulator kept a performance tally. I broke the speed limit twice, committed three traffic violations including crossing a double white line to avoid a lorry, and was out of my lane for more than 500ft of the course. I also had several near misses. No one died but I would hardly have passed my driving test.

The second was the TLX, or Task Load Index rating - a self-assessment of how stressed the experiment had made me. The higher the rating the worse you feel and I was almost double the score of the sober control group. I had emerged sweating and exhausted with the pressure, with heart racing and a feeling of being out of breath as I’d started holding my breath to concentrate on the road. I was shaking and drained.

Notwithstanding Stewart Birrell the lecturer from Brunel who monitored the test was far from impressed. He says of Youngs experiment “You had no collisions but your results show that you found it an incredibly high workload physically and mentally”.

According to Graham Johnston, of insurer RSA, says: ‘The university has proved scientifically what we’ve always felt - that driver safety is affected by a hangover. People take more risks and their driving is worse. Drivers need to think if they are really safe: Are they tired? Should they really be driving? Are they really alert? Should they not make other arrangements to get into the office? Getting a taxi home is responsible behaviour, of equal importance is saying NO to driving the next morning.

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