Is Your Designated Driver Too Drunk To Drive?

June 10, 2013

The Abstainer, the Chosen One, the Schmuck Who Drew the Short Straw: designated drivers are known by many names. According to a recent study, however, one name that many designated drivers don't live up to is "sober".

The study was conducted by Adam Barry, an assistant professor of health education and behavior at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Over the course of six weeks, he and his team conducted breath tests on 1,071 bar patrons between the hours of 10pm and 2:30am. 

Not surprisingly, researchers found that non-designated drivers had much higher blood-alcohol content levels than their (supposedly) sober peers. However, of the 165 participants who identified themselves as designated drivers, 35% admitted that they had consumed alcohol during the course of the evening.

Of that subset, roughly half -- or 17% of all designated drivers -- registered blood-alcohol levels between .02 and .049. Another 18% tested at .05 or higher, which put them nearly at or above the legal blood-alcohol content limit.

(Technically speaking, the limit in most parts of the U.S. is .08, though the National Transportation Safety Board is pushing for a reduction to .05 -- which is still far higher than the .02 allowed in countries like Russia and Sweden and the zero-tolerance policy in Japan.)

Barry notes the obvious problem: "If you look at how people choose their designated drivers, oftentimes they're chosen by who is least drunk or who has successfully driven intoxicated in the past -- successful meaning got home in one piece ... that's disconcerting."


There are a few problems with Barry's study. It was carried out in one place -- likely Gainesville, which is a big university town. Breath tests were conducted only on Friday nights before big football games, and the area canvassed was a downtown "restaurant and bar district". The average age of those tested was 28, and most were "white male college students".

In other words, the study doesn't contain a diverse sample population. Under "normal" conditions -- say, outside your average, suburban TGIFridays -- the statistics could be far less dramatic.  

What Barry's study does, though, is reaffirm what we already knew: younger drinkers can make some very poor decisions when it comes to consumption habits. To parents of college-age kids, that's very important to keep in mind. 

If you've got children of your own, talk to them about the importance of choosing a designated driver wisely and in advance. If you enjoy tossing back a few cold ones at your local watering hole, practice that policy yourself. And remember: if no one wants to be the odd man out, you always have the option to leave the car at home and call a cab. 


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