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Alcohol Raised Crash Risk Up to 600 Times

Drunk Driving
View a chart detailing the alcohol concentration in the blood at which a driver is considered legally intoxicated in various countries and how many drinks it takes.
By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 3, 1997; Page A22

The blood alcohol concentration present in Princess Diana's chauffeur increased his risk of being in a fatal, single vehicle crash 300 to 600 times above normal, according to research on the effects of alcohol on driving safety.

Add to that the risk that comes with driving at high velocity -- the vehicle is reported to have been hurtling at 120 mph, or the length of two football fields every three seconds -- and of driving in darkness, and it is almost inevitable that the car and its occupants would meet a tragic end, experts said.

"A driver at that alcohol level and in those circumstances has atrocious hand-eye coordination, delayed reaction responses, poor decision-making, decreased vision and hearing," said Matthew Robb, director of clinical services at Grace Clinic, which administers the District government's educational program for people who have been arrested for drinking while intoxicated.

"At 120 miles per hour, you need superhuman driving skills even in the best of circumstances," Robb said. "And this guy was not in the best of circumstances."

Driving a car is a far more complex task than many everyday drivers appreciate, with constantly changing demands that require quick and often subtle responses. According to experts at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, those skills can be divided into two categories: cognitive skills such as information processing, and psychomotor skills, which involve eye-brain-hand coordination. Both suffer badly under the influence of alcohol.

Princess Diana's chauffeur had undoubtedly lost significant control over his voluntary eye movements long before his blood alcohol concentration (BAC) reached the level of about 0.18 grams per deciliter detected at autopsy, according to NIAAA research. At BAC levels as low as 0.03, or about one-sixth those found in the chauffeur, the ability to focus briefly on an object as it passes by -- such as a concrete pillar -- and then refocus attention on the next, called "tracking," is seriously compromised. The driver's ability to steer precisely was also certainly undermined; studies have shown steering errors at blood alcohol levels as low as 0.035.

At levels of 0.04, less than one-fourth those found in Diana's driver, the attentional field begins to narrow. Lacking the bigger perspective, drivers are more likely to be surprised by an approaching object, and to overcompensate by pulling the steering wheel too hard.

The chauffeur had two things going for him that might have helped in less extreme circumstances: he was an experienced driver and a man. A 1989 study by the Arlington-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that younger drivers and female drivers have a higher chance of being involved in a fatal single vehicle accident compared to more experienced drivers and male drivers with the same elevated alcohol levels.

But at the extremely high alcohol levels found in the chauffeur, no amount of experience could have helped, Robb said. "Judgment goes, so instead of calling off reckless activity you are much more prone to get swept up in the emotions of the moment," he said. "Years of training go by the wayside."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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