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One Drink, Too Many

Above: View from the bar at Albie's Beef Inn in San Diego.

Aired 6/22/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

California Highway Patrol officers in San Diego County arrested 83 people on suspicion of drunken or drugged driving over Memorial Day weekend this year. As we near the July 4 holiday we'll hear about the results of a new study from UCSD analyzing the relationship between blood alcohol content (BAC) and automotive accidents. Researchers found that in collisions involving alcohol, as little as 0.01 BAC increased the likelihood of death or serious injury by 36 percent.

Alcohol Impairment Chart

The California Department of Motor Vehicle's blood alcohol concentration chart shows the correlation between weight and the number of alcoholic beverages consumed over a period of hours to blood alcohol content.

“One Drink”

1 ½-ounce shot of 80-proof liquor

5-ounces of 12% wine

12-ounce glass of 5% beer

Source: California DMV

The days of having a few drinks and driving home are long gone for most responsible drivers. But what about having one drink or some wine at dinner. Do you think you're okay to drive after that? A new study out of UC San Diego finds links between accidents and even a very small amount of alcohol in a driver's system. Supporters would like to see the research lead to a change in drunk driving laws.


David Phillips, is a sociologist at UCSD and lead author of the DUI Study published in the June 2011 issue of the "Addiction Journal".

Brian Pennings, public affairs officer for the California Highway Patrol

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: The days of having a few drinks and driving home are long gone for most responsible drivers. But what about having one drink or some wine at dinner? Do you think you're okay to drive after that? A new study out of UC San Diego findings links between accidents and even a very small amount of alcohol in a driver's system. Supporters would like to see the research lead to a change in drunk driving laws. Joining me are David Phillips, sociologist at UCSD, and lead author of the DUI study. David, good afternoon.

PHILLIPS: Good afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: And officer Brian Pennings with the California highway patrol, officer Pennings, hello.

PENNINGS: Good afternoon.

CAVANAUGH: I would like to let our listeners know that they can join our conversation if they'd like to. Our number here is 1-888-895-5727. Heme start with you, if I can, David Phillips. The blood alcohol limit all across the US is now .08†percent. Does your research indicate that that's too high?

PHILLIPS: Yes. What we found is that even very, very low levels like .01†percent are associated with unusually severe car accidents. There's an increased -- significant increased chance of being incapacitated or dying if you have -- if the driver has only .01†percent blood alcohol content compared with a sober driver.

CAVANAUGH: Now, what are the kinds of things that you studied to come to this conclusion in.

PHILLIPS: Well, we used a federal database called FARS, Fatal Accident Reporting System. We looked at about one million cases over a 15-year period. And this data set covers all car crashes in the United States that had at least one fatality. So it's designed to be a complete data set.

CAVANAUGH: And one would imagine those blood alcohol numbers for those accidents came from hospital reports?

PHILLIPS: No. In many cases they came from police, for example.

CAVANAUGH: What kind of driving impairments are linked to very low blood alcohol levels in your research?

PHILLIPS: Well, we found for example that buzzed drivers were more -- they had -- they drove cars faster than sober drivers, significantly faster, and they drove cars in which people were more likely to be not strapped in compared with sober drivers. And they were more likely to be driving the striking vehicle rather than the struck vehicle. All of these things are associated with accidents of greater severity. We also found that in general the higher the blood alcohol content, the faster the driver, the less likely the passengers are to be strapped in, and the more likely the driver is to be driving the striking vehicle. This is called epidemiology, it's called dose responsive relationship. The higher the dose, the higher the response. In this case, the higher the blood alcohol content, the worse the severity.

CAVANAUGH: Now, it's doctor Philips, right?


CAVANAUGH: I'm wondering, do you have an idea of -- you use a very interesting terminology, I'm trying to wrap my mind around it. Buzzed drivers instead of drunk drivers?

PHILLIPS: Yes. By this we meant someone who has had an amount of alcohol in him which is not illegal, according to the current standards but apparently makes a difference to the quality of his driving.

CAVANAUGH: Officer Brian Pennings with the California highway patrol is also with us. A couple of other findings in this study find serious injury higher on weekends which is really not too much of a surprise. But it also finds higher number of serious injuries in the summer time. That something the CHP finds as well?

PENNINGS: Well, I would completely agree with that. DUI is a very, very -- it's a very puzzling thing. This is how good people find themselves in this very bad situation. What happens is a person goes out, and they have a few drink, they think that they're okay, they're on their way home or back from wherever they're coming from. We stop them for whatever reason, we detective the odor of an alcoholic beverage, we have a duty responsibility to them and everybody else in California to make sure they're okay to drive. We get them out of the car and base our opinion on the totality of the circumstances. If we determine that they are under the influence, most drunk drivers will tell us, why are you arresting me? I did everything you told me to. And the truth of the matter is they think they did. They think that there was nothing wrong with their driving. They think that they nailed every test we gave them, that they answered every question we had for them, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with them. This is DUI 101. This is what people need to understand. Alcohol is a depressant. It dulls all of your senses, your biological senses, including your sense of reasoning. You don't have a clue how bad you are. The truth of the matter is you are affected the second your lips touch the bottle, the can or the cup. Whatever you're drinking, you are affected. This is why we have always said we don't say don't drive drunk. We have always said don't drink and drive. End of story.

CAVANAUGH: In doing research for this segment, I read that even if your blood alcohol doesn't make it to .08, you can fail the sobriety test.

PENNINGS: Absolutely. And if an officer determines that you are under the influence, you don't have to be at the legal limit. It's just an additional enhancement, charge, if you are at the legal limit. One thing that don't realize as well, if they're taking prescription medication for whatever reason, it could be used in conjunction with -- let's say you have a depressant that you're being prescribed for whatever reason and you mix that with a glass of wine or a bottle of beer or what have you, maybe a Margarita with your Mexican dinner or whatever you may have, you could very well find yourself coming to jail for driving under the influence.

CAVANAUGH: It seems San Diego rates for drunk driving during summer holidays, memorial day, last fourth of July, slightly up. How is it for the rest of the state?

PENNINGS: You know, I haven't looked at the state wide averages. But I can tell you it's very frustrating for us. And it's something we have 0 tolerance for. Without exception I can contribute one of three factors to every single fatality: Speed, DUI, or seatbelts. Without exception, we can have one if not all three of those factors involved in every single fatality. And DUI speed and seatbelts are three things we have absolutely 0 tolerance for.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor -- yes go ahead.

PHILLIPS: As I pointed out, those things are related so that if you drink a lot you're more likely to speed and les likely to strap yourself in.


PHILLIPS: They're not independent factors, yes.

THE COURT: That's the buzzed driver scenario that you gave us a little while ago. Doctor Phillips, and possible that other factors besides alcohol consumption contributed to a higher number of deaths and serious injuries in your research? I'm thinking like the age of the driver, or drowsiness or the age of the car?

PHILLIPS: Yes. We corrected for a large number of things including the age of the car, including the speed, including hour of day, day of week, month of year. Quite a lot of things. Drowsiness of the driver. When you hold those factors constant, it's still true that buzzed drivers are associated with significantly more dangerous car crashes than sober drivers.

CAVANAUGH: How much doctor Phillips would someone have to drink to register a .01 alcohol level?

PHILLIPS: Well, this is not -- I'm an epidemiologist, essentially, not a laboratory scientist.

CAVANAUGH: Well, then I'll give it to officer Pennings because he knows.

PENNINGS: .02 is your average 12-ounce beer. Your average glass of wine, and your average shot of liquor. If you cut that in half, you're at a .01.


PHILLIPS: Very, very little.

CAVANAUGH: Very little. And as you said, you don't want anybody to be drinking any alcohol.

PENNINGS: A designated driver is not the person who's had the least amount to drink. You don't go somewhere, lineup the beers and say, I've had four, you've had six. I'm gonna drive. A designated driver is a person who's had absolutely nothing to drink.

PHILLIPS: Yeah, I should point out in other countries which have much lower illegal limits, for example, Japan and Sweden have limits of .02†percent, and .0 thee percent. In those countries it's very often taken for granted that someone who has some alcohol in him will go home in a taxicab.

CAVANAUGH: I think doctor Phillips is our academic on this, so I'm gonna ask you, officer Pennings, is there a political will in this country to lower the alcohol -- legal alcohol limit?

PENNINGS: As far as the politics are concerned, I can say this: Whatever the government decides to do with cases and studies like what we've seen, we will enforce. As far as having an official opinion about that, I would refrain by saying we want people to be responsible, we want people to keep in mind the fact that you are affected the second your lips touch the bottle, the can, or the cup. And that a designated driver is the person who's had nothing to drink.

PHILLIPS: And not only are you affected, but are affecting other people around you.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Phillips, I want to get both of you in on this because I think an awful lot of people would say I can drive perfectly well after having a little wine or having a Margarita with my Mexican dinner. How much -- what does your research say to that?

PHILLIPS: You don't really need very much -- you don't need to respond very much slower than normal or to drive very much faster than normal or to steer just slightly different from normal to make your chance of a serious accident greater. My personal experience is, for example, that I would play pool with a neighbor. I was a slightly better pool player than he, then he would give me a half a glass of beer and beat me every time. So that's another -- pool is another example of something that requires subtle eye hand coordination. And driving does too. So I'm not surprised that find that even a very small amount of alcohol can result in slower reaction time or less precise driving.

CAVANAUGH: You must hear this all the time, officer Pennings, people have dinner with their drink, and they basically feel the dinner in some way counter mans the amount of alcohol they have had. It is not absorbed as quickly or negates it in some way. How do you answer that?

PENNINGS: Well, the amount of food in your stomach does have an effect as far as the absorption and so on. But the truth of the matter is this: It's a depressant. People need to realize you're affected as soon as it touches your lips. And that's DUI in a nutshell. You have no idea how bad you are. And if you wait to feel the effects of the alcohol, you need to remember this: You are ten times worse than you think you are. Your sensory reality is completely dulled and numbed. I like the scenario that the doctor used regarding pool. But another one that is popular that I used in my own house, we hosted a birthday party, we pulled out the dart board and started throwing darts. And the people who had nothing to drink were the designated drivers, and they were just obliterating all the other people who were drinking because it takes extreme, precise eye hand coordination to play that game. Just as he said with the pool, if somebody doesn't believe you, or somebody has question about this, try doing that, and they'll see exactly what we're talking about.

CAVANAUGH: I think it's interesting the way you put this, officer Pennings, the idea that good people get themselves in trouble in this way by not paying attention to exactly how they're being affected by alcohol because I think a lot of people are pulled over for DUI and have no idea that they're driving in a fashion that would be a danger.

PENNINGS: Not only they don't have any idea, but they're extremely argumentive because they're absolutely positive there's nothing wrong with them. And they're positive of that because they're under the influence of a depressant. Their sensory reality is completely dulled and numbed. Another thing that I wanted to talk about, DUI's an extreme -- although drinking is socially tolerant, DUI is extremely socially unacceptable. You will be very, very hard pressed to find yourself a sympathetic jury. Somebody who has not been affected we a drunk driver in some way shape or form, whether it be friends or family, it's -- although drinking is socially acceptable for the most part in our society, drinking and driving is not. And people need to realize that. It's a very, very difficult place to be in. And unfortunately, as I stated, it happens to good people. It's a very bad thing. Your first time offense is a minimum $10,000 fine and the suspension of your driver's license. Can people really afford not to have their driver's license? Not to mention the time off from work and the classes you have to take.

PHILLIPS: Not to mention the people you might kill or maim.

CAVANAUGH: Indeed. Doctor Phillips, what would you like to see happen with the results of this study?

PHILLIPS: Well, ours is the first large scale study to see what happens as you increase the level of blood alcohol in .01†percent increments am ours is the first large scale study to find empirical evidence that even buzzed driving is significantly nor dangerous than driving when sober. What we're hoping is that legislators and regulators not only in the United States but in other countries will start using this evidence to make empirically based BAC illegal levels, and not just use culture or history or politics to decide what should be an illegal BAC level. We're hoping that what will come out of this will be significant public health progress.

CAVANAUGH: I've been speaking with UCSD sociologist David Phillips, and officer Brian Pennings with the California highway patrol. Thank you both thank you very much.

PENNINGS: Thank you.

PHILLIPS: Sure. Happy to do it.