Mourning after the night before

The days are getting longer and warmer. Many of us are taking the opportunity to have a drink outside the pub on the way home from work, or perhaps visiting a country inn after an evening stroll. We’re all well aware of the perils of drink-driving, both in terms of safety and the punishments and stigma that follow a conviction. So we act appropriately, either abstaining from alcohol, getting someone who hasn’t had a drink to drive home, or simply not getting behind the wheel that night. But what about when you knocking a few back and then drive the morning after? Did you know almost 20% of drink-driving offences are committed the morning after? We asked Debbie Bannigan, chief executive of national alcohol and drug recovery charity Swanswell, to explain why drinkers need to exercise extreme caution to avoid being convicted the morning after the night before… “I’ve only been stopped by the police once.” This is what a colleague said to me the other day. It was over 20 years ago but she could tell you exactly which bit of road it was on as she can still clearly picture seeing those blue lights behind her. You know that movie moment of looking in the mirror and seeing the policeman walk towards the car, heart rate rising, panic about what you’ve done? That’s what she felt. Apparently she was on her way home from work after a late shift – but had nipped into the pub before getting in the car. So when he pulled her over there was a moment of panic about why. We joked about her having to walk lines and touch her nose. The daft thing was, she knew she was absolutely fine because she’d only had an orange juice. Turned out she had a broken headlight.
Image 1 - police stop

Over the limit?

I bet you consider yourself to be a safe driver, someone who’d never drink and drive. But have you ever thought about whether you’re legal the next morning? Think back to the last time you went out for the night and had a bit to drink. You go out, enjoy a nice meal with friends, and then head to the pub. Several hours later you call a taxi and eventually get home at 1.30am to have a final nightcap. By the time you crawl into bed feeling loved and rather squiffy, you’ve been drinking for the best part of six hours and lost count of the number of drinks you’ve had. Come 7.30am you get up, shower and force down some coffee and toast along with some painkillers. By 8.15am you’re out of the house, on your way to drop the kids at school, to the office, to meet your mates for a day out or just to get to the supermarket before everyone else.

Flashing blue lights

Ten minutes later you’re pulled over by the police. Blue flashing lights have your heart in your mouth and you’re really surprised when you find yourself being breathalysed. So just imagine how you’d feel if that test comes back positive. You’re guilty of drink-driving, for heaven’s sake. And if that seems unlikely, did you know that as little as four pints of lager the night before could take you over the limit the next day. If you’re wondering why the police breathalyse people early in the morning, it’s quite simple: almost one in five drink-drive incidents happen the morning after an evening on the sauce.

Shock to the system

In Swanswell’s experience, the people involved just didn’t know they could still be unfit to drive several hours, and a decent sleep, after their last drink. Whether they are a professional driver, a business person, a parent on the school run or a sales rep dashing to the first appointment of the morning, they are often shocked and confused by the result of their breath test, and totally unprepared for the charges and criminal record that follow. If you sometimes have several drinks late into the evening, then drive your car in the morning, you are risking a drink-drive limit shock. Alcohol impairs driving, so the consequences for you, your loved ones or complete strangers could be serious, or even fatal. It might not be just your licence that you lose. Here’s something else that’s shocking: 290 people were killed in drink-drive accidents in 2012. That’s up a quarter the previous year.

How to avoid a drink-drive shock

Not drinking any alcohol at all would provide certainty, but I accept people want a drink from time to time. But let’s be clear: drinking and driving don’t mix. From our experience, the only safe amount of alcohol when you are getting behind the wheel is NONE. You may disagree with this – if so, drop a comment in the box below this blog, I’m interested to hear from you. But if you want my advice – professional and personal – don’t drink and drive. EVER. If you enjoy a drink but want to be safe to drive next day, here are the three options available to you:

1 – learn the science of alcohol elimination rates

You can learn all about how your body processes alcohol and the rate at which it is eliminated from your system. This is a complex and imprecise science and you can find out all about it here. Let me know how you get on with this by dropping a comment below this blog.

Option 2 - the rule-of-thumb approach

As a rule of thumb, allow one hour to pass for every unit of alcohol you have consumed. So a two-unit glass of wine before 10pm will be clear of your system by midnight. However, this is not precise, it requires some maths (and the bit of your brain that does maths tends to check out first when you drink alcohol). Plus you have to understand those pesky units which, as far as I can tell, very few people do. You can find a simple calculator here. To complicate matters further, different people process alcohol at different rates for all sorts of reasons. So working to one unit per hour is too basic – you need to leave a good margin for error too. We recommend adding another two hours to make sure all the alcohol has left your system. Let me know whether you think the simple calculator will work for you by posting a comment below, it’s always interesting to know what does and doesn’t work.

Option 3 - take a test

Are you safe to drive the morning after? Simple home-use breathalysers are readily available. So, if you want a quick way of checking whether you are likely to be affected by last night’s alcohol, keep a home breathalyser handy. But, as home breathalysers are a guide only, don’t choose to drive if you think you’re still affected by last night’s alcohol, even if the breath test says you’re below the limit. The only safe amount of alcohol in your system is none. Even at half the legal limit you’re five times more likely to have an accident than if sober. Would a home breathalyser be a good choice for you? Post below to let me know what you think, on this or anything else in my blog.
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