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New year brings old drinking and driving myths

Monday - 12/30/2013, 6:29am  ET

WASHINGTON - Before the big New Year's celebration, it's time to bust some old myths when it come to drinking and driving.

Alcohol-related traffic deaths usually jump during the holiday season. But Aaron White hopes those drinking will be safer if they know the facts.

White, the program director for underage and college drinking prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), says after a couple glasses of wine, blood alcohol levels are still below the legal limit of 0.08. But that doesn't mean anyone is good to drive - even if he or she isn't slurring words or losing balance.

Driving and decision-making skills are diminished long before signs of intoxication show, White says. Research shows that driving skills diminish at blood alcohol levels around 0.05, which White says is just a glass or two of wine within an hour.

Also remember: One serving of alcohol, depending on the drink, is .6 ounces of pure alcohol.

All these equal .6 ounces of pure alcohol:

  • Beer - a 12-ounce beer is 5 percent alcohol;
  • Wine - a five-ounce glass is 12 percent alcohol;
  • A 1 1/2-ounce shot of spirits is 40 percent alcohol, which is also called 80-proof.

You can get yourself into trouble, he warns, because all drinks are not created equally. For example, if your friend mixes you a drink, that one glass could have the alcohol content of two or three drinks. He says people tend to over-pour.

White says the body rids itself of alcohol at an average rate of one serving per 90 minutes, but everybody is different. He says drinking spacers - making every other drink non-alcoholic - is a good idea. It's also important to keep eating while drinking, because it helps cut down on alcohol's impact.

What about a cup of coffee to try and wake up enough to drive?

White says, "If you give a person coffee, all you have is a wide-awake drunk person. At most the caffeine can help counteract what we call the sedative effects so you stay awake longer."

Plan ahead. White says the designated driver isn't the person who's had the least to drink.

Alcohol is an interesting drug, White says, "because it makes it hard for us to recognize when we're impaired. Somebody can be highly impaired and tell you they're not drunk." He says that's because when people drink it alters their perception and ability to make good choices.

Drinking has been a part of celebrations throughout recorded history.

"The idea is to incorporate it into your celebrations in a safe and healthy way. That means not overdoing it; that means know how much you're having per drink, spacing them out, eating while you're drinking," says White.

"Have fun but be safe, because we know, statistically, the contribution that alcohol makes to hospital visits of all kinds increases greatly around the holidays."

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