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Alcohol Impairment Begins with the First Drop

We’ve all known someone at some point in our lives who didn’t entirely believe that drinking makes a person drunk. “I know my limit,” they might say. Or maybe “I’ve only had two beers and I don’t even start to get drunk until after four.”

I’ve been that person a few times, and maybe you have, too: You didn’t even feel that first drink, so it must not have had any effect. You’ll be just fine to drive—maybe even better than fine, because you’re sharply aware of that drink you’ve had and are being extra careful.

That’s not how alcohol works. Once you add some to your system, it has an effect. The fact that you don’t feel it doesn’t change that. As an Austin car accident lawyer, I’ve seen more than my share of cases where a driver who felt he wasn’t impaired got behind the wheel and went on to cause major property damage, serious injury, and even death.

Health Benefits . . . or Not

You’ve probably heard that some research has shown that alcohol might have positive health effects. But, in fact, findings over the past few decades that suggest alcohol provides protective benefits or improves general health—or even that it might in some cases enhance learning ability—have been called into question. Researchers have been unable to show that those effects weren’t the result of other behavioral factors, or that it’s not actually the alcohol itself but some other substance (such as the resveratrol in red wine).

Zero Is Really Zero

If you’re personally in doubt about which side of this debate is correct, consider that in 2014 the World Health Organization determined that alcohol should be considered a risk factor for cancer, and that no amount should be viewed as safe. It’s one thing when you’re aware of that risk and choose to have a drink—sugar isn’t good for us either, but few of us cut it out of our diets completely. But those are choices that only affect us as individuals. You should never have a drink and get behind the wheel, because then you’re putting many others at risk, as well.

When it comes to driving, studies have shown for years that even small amounts of alcohol can cause serious impairment, whether or not the drinker feels it has had any effect. That’s the problem with a substance that affects how you feel: You can’t trust your own judgment because that’s exactly what the substance distorts. You feel fine, and that’s the subtle and dangerous way alcohol works, affecting how you feel so that you believe something that isn’t true.

And 0.08 Is Really Zero, Too

If having no alcohol before driving is the best personal policy, what is the best way to deal with the legal aspect, when most states allow a 0.08 percent BAC level?

Many people don’t realize that the 0.08 BAC is actually simply an automatic threshold: Once a driver has reached that level, they are automatically considered to be driving under the influence. In fact, in almost every jurisdiction, a driver can be prosecuted with a much lower BAC. It’s unfortunate, though, that this doesn’t happen very often.

The Standard for Impairment

People automatically accept drinking as a risk to traffic safety. After all, how many times have you heard about a study that’s found some other behavior to be “comparable to someone driving drunk?” That’s exactly how a AAA study about sleep deprivation put it. You won’t read about research determining that “driving after three drinks is nearly as dangerous as only sleeping for five hours.” If it wasn’t so scary, it would be funny how most of us accept the danger but don’t really take it seriously.

Alcohol consumption is one place where you shouldn’t trust your instincts—unless your instincts tell you that even one drink is too much. Stay completely sober or use a designated driver. We’ll all be better off if you do.

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