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Binge Drinking and Driving: More Common Than We Knew

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control has found that 1 out of 10 people got behind the wheel the last time they went on a drinking binge. Further, over half of those drivers left from a bar, restaurant or night club. This first of its kind study has shed new light on a formerly unstudied drinking behavior and suggests that new policies are needed to prevent public places from over serving people who are already intoxicated.

Binge drinking is defined as having more than five drinks in one sitting for a man and more than four drinks in one sitting for a woman. The CDC study looked at 14,000 people who said they regularly had five or more drinks in one sitting at least once per month. Twelve percent of participants admitted that they got behind the wheel within two hours of a binge. And while five drinks may seem like an overwhelmingly large number, half of the drivers who said they drove away from a bar, restaurant or other establishment admitted to having seven drinks. A quarter of those had imbibed a whopping 10 or more drinks before taking to the roads.

Dr. Timothy Naimi of the CDC’s Alcohol program led the study, which was released earlier this month. According to Naimi, binge drinking is the main factor behind the more than 11,000 deaths caused annually by alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes.

So what can we do about binge drinkers? As reported in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, most states already have laws in place that are supposed to prevent bars, nightclubs, restaurants and other drinking establishments from selling alcohol to drunk patrons. But local law enforcement simply does not have the personnel to spend a great deal of time inside bars enforcing over-serving laws, especially on busy Friday and Saturday nights.

“[Over serving laws] are among the most disregarded laws in the country,” said Naimi.

Unfortunately, over serving is one juncture where commerce and the law disagree. It is in the best interest of a bartender or restaurant owner to continue to serve drinks as long as patrons or ordering. Working for tips, word of mouth, and repeat business, bartenders and owners are best served if they keep serving, and serving, and serving drinking patrons.

There is a bit of good news along with the bad. This most recent CDC study is based on phone surveys taken in 2003 and 2004, but since then, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drunk driving fatalities have decreased almost 10%.

Further, new technology has helped in the fight against drunk driving. Some judges have taken to punishing drunk drivers with court-mandated devices that do not allow a car to start until the driver breathes into a breathalyzer device and confirms that their blood alcohol level does not exceed the legal limit.

Unfortunately, efforts like in-car breathalyzer tests focus on punishing offenders, not enablers. Restaurants, bars and nightclubs rarely find themselves penalized for over-serving patrons.
“The drinking location is really important,” said Naimi. “We’re trusting these licensed establishments to serve responsibly, and more than half of the intoxicated people who drive have been drinking in these places.”

Also according to Naimi, a follow-up survey in 2008 found that the binge drinking and driving situation hadn’t changed. Results of the follow-up are pending release.

If you or someone you know has been injured by a drunk driver, you have legal recourse. Call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule your free consultation.