Study: Many designated drivers fail to abstain from drinking

Research shows that many designated drivers fail to abstain from drinking, and even drivers with BACs below the legal limit may be unfit to drive.

As most people in Raleigh know, designating a sober driver is often recommended as a safe, responsible alternative to drinking and driving. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for designated drivers to consume alcohol, putting themselves, their passengers and other motorists at risk. Alarmingly, research suggests that even when designated drivers are well below the legal limit, they may still be likely to cause accidents, injuries and fatalities.

Unsafe designated drivers

A 2013 University of Florida study shed some light on the issue of drinking among designated drivers. According to NPR, the study focused on patrons leaving bars in one Florida town on a weekend night following a local college football game. More than 1,000 patrons consented to take breath tests and answer questions from the researchers. The results were troubling:

  • Out of the people who identified themselves as designated drivers, 41 percent had consumed alcohol that night.
  • Out of the designated drivers who consumed alcohol, 17 percent had blood alcohol content levels less than .02 percent. NPR notes that, while most drivers might think this BAC level is safe, some studies have found drivers show performance impairments even at this low threshold.
  • Another 18 percent of the designated drivers who consumed alcohol had BACs greater than .05 percent. This is the legal limit observed in many other countries and recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board in May 2013.

Most of the participants were young, with an average age of 30, and many were students, so the findings may not be representative of the general population. Arguably, though, the study results reflect widespread issues with the way many people view the role of designated driver.

Poor definitions of 'designated driver'

According to NPR, surveys show that many Americans don't believe it's necessary for designated drivers to stay completely sober. Unfortunately, it may be difficult for designated drivers to judge how impaired they are once they make the decision to drink at all.

This issue may be especially pronounced among teenagers. According to Bloomberg News, a 2014 Liberty Mutual Survey found that one in five teens believe it's acceptable for the designated driver to drink or take drugs, as long as he or she is not too impaired to drive. Another 4 percent of teens simply defined the designated driver as the least intoxicated member of the group. Unfortunately, even designated drivers with BACs well below the legal limit may endanger other motorists.

Impairment at extremely low levels

Reuters reports that in early 2014, researchers from the University of California, San Diego published a study based on a review of more than 570,000 fatal collisions, which occurred in the U.S. between 1994 and 2011. The researchers targeted auto accidents involving "minimally buzzed" drivers with BACs of just .01 percent.

They found that even these drivers were 46 percent more likely to be officially and exclusively blamed in the final accident report compared to drivers who were sober. The risk of blame for fatal accidents only increased with BAC level. Researchers concluded that there is virtually no BAC level at which a person can safely operate a vehicle.

Sadly, many people are not aware of this finding or the dangerous effects associated with moderate alcohol consumption. As a result, many innocent motorists may be harmed in alcohol-related accidents. If you or a loved one has been injured in a car accident involving a drunk driver, please consider meeting with an attorney to discuss possible legal remedies.

Keywords: drunk driving, accident, injury