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The Best New Year's Resolution: Don't Drink and Drive

Alcohol-related traffic deaths spike this time of year, experts say

FRIDAY, Dec. 30, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- What road threat gets heightened as revelers travel far and wide to welcome in the New Year?

Thirty-seven percent of people who responded to a recent Gallup poll called drunk driving the greatest highway safety problem, even greater than speeding.

And 60 percent of those same people admitted they had driven a vehicle while drunk or near-drunk, up from 57 percent in 2000.

"The poll clearly shows this is a major concern, especially during the holidays because of increased drinking and increased driving," said Glynn Birch, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which co-sponsored the survey with Nationwide Insurance.

In 2003, the latest year for statistics, 1,579 people in the United States were killed in alcohol-related crashes between Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve. Through the whole year, almost 17,000 people were killed by drunk or impaired driving, an average of one every 30 minutes.

The poll did have one piece of good news that provides a ray of hope, added Birch, the first male to head the national organization.

Almost one in five drivers, 17 percent, said they had encouraged someone not to drive in the past week because it looked like they had too much to drink, he said.

Many New Year's revelers get into trouble because they don't recognize that their driving skills and decision-making abilities are impaired long before they begin to show physical signs of intoxication, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).

It's also easy to misjudge alcohol's lasting effects.

Alcohol continues to affect the brain and body long after the last drink has been consumed. Even after someone stops drinking, alcohol in the stomach and intestines continues to enter the bloodstream and circulate throughout the body. So, judgment and coordination can be impaired for hours after drinking, the NIAAA said.

"When you do see someone is questionable, say, 'Hey, let me drive, or let someone else drive,' " Birch said.

Planning is key to being a safe driver on New Year's Eve, or any time for that matter, said Heidi Coleman, chief of the Impaired Driving Division at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"We're not saying adults should never drink, but that they should have a safe way home," Coleman said.

That means either arranging to stay the night, taking a cab, or deciding early in the evening which person will stay sober and drive. And that person needs to stay sober, Coleman said -- not try to sober up at the end of the evening.

Guests and hosts also should know some basic facts about both drinking and sobering up, according to MADD:

  • Coffee will not speed up sobriety. Only time can make a person sober.
  • Beer and wine are just as intoxicating as hard liquor. A 12-ounce can of beer, a five-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce wine cooler and an ounce-and-a-half of liquor contain the same amount of alcohol.
  • Mixers won't help dilute alcohol. In fact, carbonated mixers like club soda or tonic water cause a person's system to absorb alcohol more quickly. Also, fruit juice and other sweet mixers mask the taste of alcohol and may cause people to drink more.

Hosts shouldn't let guests mix their own drinks. Rather, they should appoint a reliable "bartender" who can keep track of the size and number of drinks that guests consume.

And about 90 minutes before a party ends, the host should close the bar and serve a dessert with coffee. This will give guests the time they need to sober up, if they have been drinking.

Everyone driving should also be sure to use seat belts.

"Seat belts are your best defense against a drunk driver," Birch said. "We want people to drive safe, drive sober and buckle up."

Finally, if New Year's Day arrives and you're home safe and sound but found you had too much to drink, don't count on medications or herbal remedies to cure your hangover, according to a study published this month in the British Medical Journal.

"No compelling evidence exists to suggest that any conventional or complementary intervention is effective for preventing or treating alcohol hangover," concluded a team led by Max Pittler, a research fellow in Complementary Medicine at Peninsula Medical School, Universities of Exeter and Plymouth.

More information

For more on the dangers posed by drunk drivers, visit MADD.

SOURCES: Glynn Birch, national president Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Irving, Texas; Heidi Coleman, chief, Impaired Driving Division, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C.
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