Issue #109
December 2020
Beware the dangers of drink driving this Christmas

Alcohol is Australia’s most widely used social drug, the effects of which can be both long term and short term. During the Christmas and New Year period, there is usually an increase in festivities, including parties, work functions and barbeques, and with that often comes an increase in alcohol consumption. We spoke to A/Prof Vanita Parekh AM, Director, Clinical Forensic Medical Services at Canberra Health Services, who explains the dangers of drink driving this Christmas.

“Drink driving happens at varying rates throughout the year, however what we do know is that there are higher levels of alcohol consumption in these summer months. Alcohol slows the activity of the central nervous system, including the brain, which can have a huge impact on an individual’s ability to drive safely. When you’re behind the wheel driving a vehicle, you need total concentration, good coordination, rapid reflexes and the ability to make correct judgments and decisions. Drinking alcohol drastically reduces that ability.

“The other massive problem we have seen is cannabis and alcohol together because they work on different parts of the brain. When you combine those together, it completely wipes out all of the critical skills that you need for driving – it’s a terrible combination. We are seeing a lot more cases associated with drugs in the younger population, and in the older population it is more likely to be associated with alcohol. The pattern is actually changing at the moment which is really interesting.

“Clinical forensic medicine plays a big role in terms of giving evidence at drink driving cases, but also to attend all road traffic fatalities in a particular jurisdiction, where a pathologist will subsequently determine the cause of death. So, at 3am when someone has died on the road because they have not been able to be resuscitated, we will be there to attend the scene of the collision. Toxicology results will later reveal if an individual was under the influence of drugs or alcohol,” said A/Prof Vanita.

The level of alcohol in the blood is called blood alcohol concentration (BAC); this level rises as alcohol is consumed. Australia has strict laws about drinking alcohol and driving, with the legal limit set at 0.05 BAC for full licence holders and 0 BAC for special drivers, including P platers and commercial drivers.

“When it is consumed, alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the blood through the walls of the stomach and small intestine. It travels to all parts of the body including the brain which it slows down. It affects not only the way that you feel but also the way you think and behave. I think we have a really important role to play in terms of prevention and many of us provide teaching around alcohol and its effects.

“Unfortunately, the 0.05 limit has been misinterpreted by the population and many people think that it is a safe level to drive at, whereas we know it is not. There are dangers not only from the effects of the alcohol but also from the fatigue that it causes, therefore the recommendation is not to have any alcohol at all when you are driving. If you are going to drink, the safest option is to arrange alternative transport or accommodation ahead of time,” said A/Prof Vanita.



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