Drinking can make us prone to minor accidents, like knocking over your drink at a house party, that you may dismiss as part of an average night. But alcohol can be the cause of more serious accidents too.
There are two main things that make this likely. Because it’s a depressant, alcohol slows down the brain and affects the body’s responses. At the same time, if you’ve been drinking, you’re more likely to take risks. Combined, these reactions increase the chance of accidents happening.
“That table looks perfectly safe to dance on.”
“Forgot my keys. I’ll just hop over this fence!”
These are just two examples of the more light-hearted side-effects of drinking alcohol once euphoria sets in. But the feeling you get when the amount of alcohol in your blood increases can have disastrous consequences too. It can make you overestimate your own abilities and behave recklessly. Thinking that road doesn’t look as busy or that gap isn’t so big to jump over.
As blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises, so does the risk of accidents. BAC, the amount of alcohol in your breath or blood, is measured in mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood, or mg%. It’s affected by all sorts of factors, including how much alcohol you drink, how fast you drink it, your body size, how much you’ve eaten, your gender and even your emotional health.
Alcohol affects your body’s responses. It slows down your brain which means you are more likely to have an accident.
Drinking alcohol can:
- affect our judgement and reasoning
- slow down our reactions
- upset our sense of balance and coordination
- impair our vision and hearing
- make us lose concentration and feel drowsy.
Since 1979, when detailed reporting began, there has been an almost six-fold reduction in the number killed in drink drive accidents and a similar drop in seriously injured casualties1.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that drink drive accidents still account for 14% of all road deaths in Britain2.
For drivers, alcohol can:
- reduce your ability to see distant objects – night vision can be reduced by 25%3
- make you have blurred and double vision
- reduce your ability to perceive what is happening around you
- make you lose your peripheral vision.
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the alcohol limit for drivers is 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, 35 microgrammes per 100 millilitres of breath or 107 milligrammes per 100 millilitres of urine.
In Scotland, the alcohol limit for drivers is 50 milligrams of alcohol in every 100 millilitres of blood. The breath alcohol equivalent is 22 micrograms of alcohol per 100 millilitres of breath4.
Stark statistics reveal the extent to which alcohol increases the risk of accidents of all kinds:
- Alcohol is a factor in up to one in four workplace accidents5.
- A survey in Scotland found that over half of fire deaths between 2005 and 2008 had alcohol recorded as a contributing factor6.
Even after alcohol has left your bloodstream, you’re more likely to have an accident. In one study, 14 hours after drinking, two-thirds of a group of pilots could not perform routine tasks in a simulator, despite the fact that all the alcohol had left their system7.
If you’ve had an accident when you’ve been drinking, other effects are:
- Your recovery from injury may be hindered. This is because alcohol affects your circulation and the immune system.
- It’s harder for doctors to diagnose serious conditions such as head injuries when a patient is drunk.
- Alcohol can interfere with anaesthetic and other medication, meaning operations and treatment may be delayed.
- Don’t drive, operate machinery, swim or take unnecessary risks.
- Look out for friends who may be behaving recklessly.
- Remember that your performance and judgement could still be affected by alcohol the day after a heavy drinking session.
- If you are at the scene of an accident, call the emergency services as soon as possible. Once you’ve called for help, if the person who needs it is unconscious, make sure their airway is open. If they are sick and their throat or tongue becomes blocked with vomit, they can choke and stop breathing.
- If the person is breathing, place them in the recovery position. If they aren’t breathing, perform chest compressions and breathe into their mouth.
- If someone is bleeding, apply pressure to the wound using a clean cloth or piece of clothing. If they’re in shock, lay them down, and raise and support the injured limb.
- If someone is burned or scalded, cool the affected area in cold running water for at least 10 minutes, then cover the wound with a clean, non-fluffy cloth to prevent infection.
- Accident victims who have been drinking suffer more serious injuries than those who haven’t8.
- Around 14% of all deaths in reported road traffic accidents in 2013 involved at least one driver over the drink drive limit10.
- Provisional estimates show that between 240 and 340 people were killed in drink drive accidents in 201511.
You can keep your risk low by staying within the government’s recommended low risk guidance. Here are three ways you can cut back:
- Have several Drink Free Days a week. A great way to reduce your drinking is to have several Drink Free Days a week. You can even keep track of your drink-free days with our free Drinkaware: track and Calculate Units app. Test out having a break for yourself and see what positive results you notice.
- Stress less.Some people drink alcohol to relax, but in reality alcohol can make you feel even more stressed out. Try not to make alcohol key to your after work wind down, and consider some alternative stress-busters like hitting the gym or having a hot bath.
- Know what you’re buying.Check out the ABV on a bottle of wine before you buy it. ABV stands for Alcohol by Volume, which is the percentage of the drink that is pure alcohol. It’s not uncommon for a bottle of wine to be verging on 15% ABV, which could easily push you over the UK Chief Medical Officers' (CMO) low risk drinking guidelines of 14 units a week for men and women, if you drink more than one glass. Producers are increasingly introducing 10% or lower ABV wines that are as palatable as their stronger counterparts. Look out for them when you’re next buying a bottle.
Your GP can help you figure out if you should make any changes in your drinking, and offer help and advice along the way.
If you’re concerned about someone’s drinking, or your own, Drinkline runs a free, confidential helpline. Call 0300 123 1110.
To find out about first aid courses in your area contact the St John Ambulance on 08700 10 49 50 or via their website www.sja.org.uk
Last reviewed: 30 March 2016
Next review due: 30 March 2019