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Can You Still Be Impaired While Under the Legal Alcohol Limit?

by Landmark Recovery

March 29, 2021
legal alcohol limit

Can You Still Be Impaired While Under the Legal Alcohol Limit?

How many drinks does it take you to be over the legal alcohol limit?

Also, can you be impaired while under the limit?

We’ll be addressing these questions today and more as we examine whether or not you are impaired to drive when below the legal limit.

What Is The Legal Limit for Driving?

If you drink regularly, you may feel that the legal limit to drive is comparatively low. Many regular drinkers report feeling in control even if their blood alcohol concentration is at or above 0.08%. On the other hand, some people feel too drunk to drive when displaying a low blood alcohol count.

Research recently came to light showing you can still be cognitively impaired when below the legal alcohol limit.

The study was published in The Journal of Physiology and measured reaction times in people with varying blood alcohol concentrations. The results of the study now call into question the adequacy of current drink-drive legislation.

What Is Blood Alcohol Content (BAC)?

Blood alcohol content (BAC) is the ratio of alcohol to blood. You can measure BAC within 30 to 70 minutes of drinking.

The ethanol content – that’s the alcohol –  is expressed in grams as a percentage of the blood (expressed in milliliters).

A standard drink typically raises your BAC by 0.02%. You metabolize 0.02% each hour.

BAC levels of 0.06 means there are 0.06 grams of alcohol in every 100ml of blood. This ratio varies according to other factors, though. Variables include gender, size, body weight, age, and whether you’ve eaten. As women tend to have higher body fat than men, they typically feel the effects of alcohol quicker.

Blood alcohol content may not be a reliable indicator of someone’s level of impairment. Some people become intoxicated much quicker than others when consuming the same amount of alcohol.

What Does Alcohol Do To Us? 

When you drink alcohol, it slows the brain and the central nervous system. You have two types of neurons in your CNS – excitatory and inhibitory. Alcohol slows the excitatory neurons and excites the inhibitory neurons. Inhibitory neurons normally guide your thoughts. When you drink alcohol, though, it stimulates these neurons while also shutting down multiple processes in your brain. Resultantly, your brain stops paying attention to external sources, and it also starts to think about the inconsequential.

How Blood Alcohol Content Affects Us

Alcohol affects people differently according to their body mass, but as a general rule of thumb:

  • 0.2%: you feel more relaxed and your mood changes
  • 0.5%: behavior becomes exaggerated and you start to lose your inhibitions
  • 0.8%: your balance, speech, vision, and reaction time can become impaired

The Study

NASA Ames Research Center discovered that hand-eye coordination is severely affected by alcohol, even at blood alcohol concentrations as low as 0.015%. The study shows that even small amounts of alcohol can be dangerous in activities such as driving, piloting, and working machinery. Even half a beer can compromise the hand-eye coordination of a person weighing 165 pounds.

The study used a technique of measuring eye movements after alcohol consumption, vital for hand-eye coordination. Participants in the study looked at a set of points on a screen then followed a dot with their eyes. The dot moved randomly in different directions at different speeds.

The results show that your performance is affected much more than you subjectively believe. Even at a low dose, alcohol can impair reaction times. It’s important to note that how you feel after you have a drink can be wildly different from the reality of your blood alcohol concentration.

Many people can feel so drunk they don’t feel safe to drive, but when they perform a breath test, their BAC is only 0.04%, half the legal limit.

Why Is Blood Alcohol Content Important?

The level of alcohol in your blood is important as the higher the concentration, the higher the risk.

0.08% is the BAC legal limit, but you are at heightened risk of injury or death if you continue drinking to the extent of a very high blood alcohol concentration.

Typically, it takes around an hour to metabolize a standard drink, which brings the BAC down by 0.02%. A standard drink can be:

  • 12 fluid ounces of beer
  • 5 fluid ounces of wine
  • 1.5 fluid ounces of spirits such as vodka, tequila, or whiskey.

If you drink to the BAC point of 0.08, you typically experience:

  • Reduced reasoning
  • Loss of self-control
  • Poor judgment
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of balance
  • Slower reactions
  • Memory loss

Even before you reach the legal BAC limit of 0.08, you can experience:

  • Loss of inhibitions and control
  • Exaggerated behavior
  • Impaired judgment

When your liver has to metabolize a higher concentration of alcohol, it takes longer to break it down. If you binge drink, then, you can still damage your liver, even if you’re under the legal limit.

Binge drinking and regular heavy drinking beyond the legal alcohol limit to self-medicate for anxiety and depression will only inflame the condition. It’s crucial to reach out for help if you’re suffering from anxiety or depression instead of turning to drink.

Dangers of Drinking Over The Legal BAC Limit

According to the Centers for Disease Control, over 95,000 people die due to excessive alcohol use each year. This means alcohol is killing more than the opioid epidemic, responsible for 81,000 deaths from 2019 and 2020 alone.

Excessive alcohol use is the leading cause of preventable death in the US and cost the nation $249 billion in the US in 2010. Drinking to excess regularly causes cancer, liver disease, and heart disease. In the short-term, alcohol kills through road accidents, alcohol poisoning, overdose, and suicide.

Even if you don’t die, excessive alcohol consumption can ruin your life, your health, your looks, and your finances.

You may not feel like you have an alcohol problem. Indeed, many people are functioning alcoholics. They go to work, run the home, and get the kids to school. Despite this outward sheen of normality, they may be drinking way more than the legal alcohol limit each day.

It’s vital to be aware of how potent alcohol is. Just because it’s legal, that doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. Alcohol needs to be treated as a substance potentially hazardous to your emotional and physical health.

Reaching Out

If you routinely drink a bottle of wine each night or a six-pack of beer, you may want to ask yourself if you’re wrecking your health and your finances.

Alcoholism is a progressive disease. Typically, it starts with a few drinks to wind down with each day. The disease insidiously creeps up and catches you unawares. If you don’t address the issue, you face a worsening problem, and you could be heading for some nasty health problems and life circumstances.

Here To Help

There’s no harm in reaching out to a treatment center like Landmark Recovery for an assessment. The highly trained staff at Landmark can help you to reduce your drinking or quit drinking completely so you can reclaim a healthier and more sustainable way of living.

The sooner you address a drinking problem, the easier it will be to stop progressing to a more dangerous level. Call us today at 888-488-0302.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.