Could new research on drink-driving lead to changes in the law based on age?

According to new research from the United States those over 55 should not drink and drive…at all. Prof Sarah Jane Nixon from the University of Florida Department of psychiatry and psychology, conducted a major research study published in the Journal Psychopharmacology on how drink driving, even within legally permissible levels of alcohol, affects driving according to age.

The study comprised of two age groups – The first, a group of 36 participants aged between 25 to 35 years. The second group, also 36 participants, was aged between 55 and 70.

The results make interesting reading:

Although neither group consumed enough alcohol to put them over the drink-driving limit, the results show that even one alcoholic drink (equivalent of 0.08 blood alcohol level) can impact on the ability to drive in the older control group of drivers.

The study has been described as the first ever that looks at the effects of alcohol on driving when looking at the combination of the age of the driver and the impact of alcohol.

The simulated drink driving exercise

According to the research, both age groups were asked to complete a simulated driving exercise whilst sober. This took the drivers down a winding stretch of road for about three miles. The drivers simulated line of vision looking out of the front window screen a computer monitor), with a further two computer monitors mimicking the side windows of the car to simulate what the driver would see in his peripheral vision. During the “driving” a stereo would play driving sounds.

The research looked at the ability of the driver to stay in the middle lane and also to maintain a consistent speed. The researchers also considered how quickly the driver would adjust the steering wheel.

The following day, the groups were further segregated. The first were given a placebo diet lemon and lime soda misted with a almost negligible quantity of alcohol (to mimic the experience of consuming alcohol).The second were given alcohol sufficient enough to produce a 0.04% breath alcohol level.

The third were given a alcoholic drinks equivalent to 0.065% (still below the US federal legal limit for the drinking and driving of 0.08%).

All the drivers were then required to complete the same driving tasks they had performed a day earlier, whilst sober.

The study researchers then times the exercise so that the participant drivers alcohol levels would mimic a scenario parallel with a typical scenario with someone who would drink with their evening meal and then drive home.

The “surprising” finding.

The results showed the consumption of alcohol do not affect the driving school of the younger age group in any way whatsoever, which Prof Nixon described as “surprising”, whereas with older drivers, the small increase in intoxication did show their driving was impaired.

So should over 55’s who drink lower quantities of alcohol be banned from driving? Not quite, Professor Nixon stresses that the artificial laboratory settings were much more simplified as compared to actual driving in real conditions and the potential complexity that arise.

Nonetheless, it’s an important distinction and one which drink-driving lawyers, barristers and experts will no doubt follow closely given the potential impact on marginal or borderline calculations in drink-driving cases. Watch this space…

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