Talk to families who have experienced the loss of a loved one due to a drunk driving and you might find a common trend in their response: “The drunk driver, of course, survived.”
There is a natural envy a family has when a drunk driver is responsible for the accident they caused yet walk away from but the question is where did this trend of ironic survivability come from? The answer is two-fold.
Research conducted by the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute in 2009 found that, out of 7,985 trauma patients studied between 2004-2008, only 1 percent of intoxicated patients died compared to 7 percent of sober patients. When they accounted for severity and type of injury, they found intoxicated patients had a 65% greater chance of survival than sober patients. Conducting a further study of 14,419 patients who had suffered major head injuries, they found 7.7 percent patients who had alcohol present in their system died compared to 9.7 percent. Researchers like Dr. Virgilio have theorized that alcohol acts to block certain stress hormones that block receptors, in turn this help aids with healing and recovery. It should be noted, however, that chronic alcoholics have a lower survivability than sober patients due to other medical complications.
This only tells the story post-accident, however, what about during the accident itself which tragically is the ending point for many individuals. If we look again at that research, we see a six percent difference when we don’t compare severity of injury. This is because drunk drivers sustain less injuries. How can this be? It has to do with how the body reacts to a crash versus how car manufacturers build their safety systems. Watch any video from an IIHS crash test and you’ll see the crash dummy flopping around during the crash. If the car is designed well the body will be contained with secure SRS technology like safety belts, front and side airbags, knee deflectors, etc. as well as a body shell which disperses crash energy around the cabin rather than through it. In a poorly constructed vehicle the dummy will ragdoll through the cabin as it crumples and slams into the inadequately restrained occupant. A drunk driver and a crash test dummy have an important detail in common: They’re both loose.
Think of the last time you were in, or almost in, an accident and how you reacted the moment you knew something was coming. You likely felt that sensation of time slowing, you slammed the brakes, you firmly gripped the steering wheel to ensure as much control as you could muster, in short you tensed up and braced for the impact. Manufacturers and crash researchers are finding that this natural inclination is actually hurting your chances of survival. Your muscles and bones lock up, which means more chance of trauma and injury compared to if you kept your body loose and limber. A drunk driver often lacks the proper reaction time and so their body going limp isn’t their choice, and some end up in the foot well of their vehicle after an accident protected by the stronger portions of the vehicle’s body.
Does this mean you should drink a belt of hard alcohol before hitting the road? Absolutely not. Being inebriated is what typically causes the accident in the first place and ultimately safe driving habits are the best tools for survivability. However, this does teach us that when an accident occurs, don’t lock up and let your vehicle’s safety equipment take over for you. The accident is already occurring so snap steering judgements aren’t likely to protect you. These studies have also given manufacturers direction to help improve safety by understanding human behavior, such as taking control of the steering and braking systems when an impending accident is detected and creating air bags with modulating inflation systems dependent on the severity of the crash. Medical groups are also exploring if one-time, controlled amounts of ethanol can help improve a patient’s recovery after a traumatic accident. Don’t be quick to stash that flask in your glovebox, however, best to leave your drinking for when you’re outside of the vehicle. It could save someone’s life, including your own.