Most people recognize the dangers of drinking and driving. In the spirit of responsibility, some then decide to ride a bike home, or better yet, hoof it after a night of drinking. But is drinking and walking much safer?
Overall, the number of pedestrian deaths is on the rise. Whereas the number of deaths from traffic accidents has decreased since 2002, the percentage of pedestrian fatalities has grown by 3 percent. Part of this increase may be attributable to alcohol, as more than one-third of pedestrians killed in 2011 had blood alcohol concentration (BAC) levels above the legal driving limit (.08).
Try the If I Drink BAC calculator with first person POV videos to see how you would drive, ride a bike, or drive a car after drinking.
Walking is a fairly straightforward task that, once learned, becomes automatic. You don’t really need to think about it. You just do it. Under the influence of alcohol, however, mind and body may not be able to sync up to the task at hand. Here are some of the profound ways alcohol can impede your ability to do even this most basic activity:
Alcohol has negative effects on muscle coordination, vision and speech. At BAC levels of .1 to .15, alcohol travels to the midbrain. This is where muscle coordination, vision and speech are controlled. With this amount of alcohol, people tend to sway, slur their speech and have poor visual coordination.
To check for these deficits, police officers ask suspected impaired drivers to do something simple: walk the line. The walk-and-turn field sobriety test requires individuals to follow simple verbal instructions while performing ordinary physical movements like walking in a straight line – both exercises that an unimpaired individual should be able to do. In this test, officers are checking for some of the telltale signs of motor impairment such as difficulty staying balanced and struggling to touch heel-to-toe.
Alcohol affects cognition, judgment and decision-making. The “walk the line” test also examines people’s ability to divide their attention between simple mental and physical exercises and to follow instructions. This is because the first part of the brain to be affected by alcohol is the frontal lobe, the area responsible for judgment and reasoning. Alcohol deadens and suppresses the nerves inside the brain, leading to severe distortions in judgment. For example, under the influence of alcohol, pedestrians may make poor decisions such as crossing a road against the light or in the wrong place, or miscalculating how quickly an oncoming car is approaching.
Reaction time slows. Whether walking, riding a bicycle or driving, research shows that even small amounts of alcohol can affect a person’s ability to immediately react when something unexpected occurs. This is due to the fact that it takes longer for an intoxicated person’s brain to process messages from other parts of the body. Alcohol intoxication can slow down reaction time by as much as 30 percent.
Alcohol affects all systems in the body. Every organ in the body is affected by alcohol consumption. A central nervous system depressant, alcohol is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestines into the bloodstream. Enzymes in the liver metabolize alcohol, but the liver can only metabolize a small amount at a time. This leaves the excess alcohol free to circulate about the body, affecting most major systems and functions.
Predict the Consequences Without the Danger
Not everyone will be visibly affected by one or two drinks. Individual reactions to alcohol are influenced by such factors as age, gender, race or ethnicity, physical condition, amount of food consumed before drinking, how quickly the alcohol was consumed, and use of drugs or prescription medications.
Fortunately, you don’t need to drink to get an idea of how alcohol might affect you. A new simulated drinking app, “If I Drink,” offers a first-person virtual experience that shows just how severely alcohol can affect your ability to walk the line, as well as drive a car or ride a bicycle at different BAC levels, ranging from sober to extremely intoxicated. The app also describes the potential legal consequences based on current state law.
So if you shouldn’t walk home drunk, and you certainly can’t ride a bike or drive, what are you supposed to do? If you’re going to drink, there are safer ways to get home – get a ride from a designated driver or call a cab. If you’re determined to walk home, walk in a group, preferably escorted by someone who is sober, so that you’re easily visible to drivers. In most cases, drunk walking is probably a better choice than drunk driving, but it is nevertheless a choice that carries significant dangers. Next time ask yourself: Is it really worth the risk?