States define legally drunk to be a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08 percent. This, of course, is only a legal guideline. Some people will be experience different levels of impairment at this BAC depending on many factors including age, drinking frequency and the effect of any medication they may be taking. There are charts and calculators that roughly estimate a person’s BAC based upon the number of drinks, body weight and time lapse. This yields a very rough estimate and does not consider how an individual reacts to a given BAC. A person with a BAC well below the legal limit may still be dangerously impaired.
For a slightly impaired driver an uneventful drive home is a non-event. The problem arises when the drive is not uneventful. Other people create a situation which, in the normal course of events, would only require a moderate brake application or change in direction. The slightly impaired driver may not observe the situation promptly, may hesitate in deciding the correct course of action or even react incorrectly. An innocent error on the part of another motorist becomes the catalyst for an accident and possible injury.
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The normal sight-reaction time, the time a moderately alert driver will take to observe a hazard, decide the best course of action and then react, is estimated to be about 1.5 seconds. For elderly drivers it is sometimes estimated to be as much as 2.0 seconds. When considering the total stopping distance of a moving vehicle there are two components to be considered. The distance the vehicle travels during the sight-reaction time and then the distance traveled under braking. At 50 mph, for example, the distance traveled in 1.5 to 2.0 seconds will be approximately 110 ft. to 147 ft. respectively. Once the brakes have been applied the vehicle will travel an additional 119 ft. on dry pavement with good tires and proper braking effort. Total distance traveled would be between 229 ft. and 266 ft. This is approaching the length of a football field.
Alcohol impairment increases sight-reaction time while, at 50 mph, a vehicle is traveling 73 feet per each additional second. The impact on reaction time is not the only effect of alcohol. In some individuals, there is the additional problem of reduced inhibition and judgment. So in addition to increased reaction time these individuals can be found speeding and driving recklessly.
With the legalization of marijuana in Washington State and Colorado the definition of impaired driving is taking on a new meaning. According to the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) there are eighteen states that have laws impacting driving while having ingested a controlled substance. Three states regulate drugs and alcohol both individually and if combined. While there is a distinction between medication and illicit drugs, the states are beginning to recognize the result of impaired driving. Regardless of whether the driver is impaired due to alcohol, illegal drug use or the ingestion of a prescribed medication it remains the responsibility of the driver to not drive while impaired.
In recent years the use of cell phones while driving has come under scrutiny and termed distracted driving. Attention is being focused on anything that prevents the driver from functioning competently in the job at hand, controlling a motor vehicle. The dangers of drug or alcohol impairment or being distracted by texting on a cell phone, adjusting the radio, eating or grooming while driving are obvious. And yet people engage in these activities while driving every day.
In 2010, a female motorcyclist, Anita Zaffke, was killed while waiting at a stoplight. The driver of the car that struck and killed her was quoted by police as admitting that she was painting her fingernails at the time of the crash. The driver was convicted of reckless homicide.
The consequences of impaired or inattentive driving are not always this drastic, but when an individual gets behind the wheel he or she assumes a serious responsibility. Driving a motor vehicle is not a dangerous activity unless it is not taken seriously. A mature oak tree is surprisingly unforgiving when struck at speed by an inebriated or inattentive driver.