A new study has investigated drunk driving, and in particular its association with the practice of mixing alcohol and energy drinks, and found that college students who consume the concoctions are significantly more likely to drive under the influence than those who don’t.
Drunk driving is one of the most worrying risks associated with alcohol, as it not only puts the individual drinker at risk, but also anybody in the car with him or her and anybody who happens to be on the road at the same time. Alongside other recent findings, the new study suggests that mixing alcohol and energy drinks is an especially risky practice that makes it more likely consumers will drive drunk.
Do Energy Drinks Increase The Risk Of Drunk Driving?
The authors investigated the differences in drinking and drinking-related behaviors in a group of 355 college students. Specifically, they used a survey to look at the differences between “combined users” of alcohol and energy drinks and those who drank only alcohol when it comes to drunk driving. Of the entire sample, 281 drank alcohol over the past month, with 107 drinking alcohol with energy drinks and 174 drinking only alcohol. A person with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent is considered to be driving drunk, but the effects of alcohol on a driver’s performance start at even lower levels.
Combined Users More Likely To Drive Drunk
The main finding of the research was that more of the combined users of alcohol and energy drinks drove drunk than those who drank alcohol only, with 53 percent of the former and 38 percent of the latter driving at a BAC of more than 0.08 percent. Additionally, 57 percent of the combined users and 44 percent of the alcohol-only group drove when they knew they were too drunk to do so. There was also a corresponding difference in the numbers of combined users and alcohol-only drinkers who rode in the car with a driver they knew was too drunk to drive, with 56 percent of the former and 35 percent of the latter doing so.
There were also more general differences between the groups, with the alcohol and energy drink consumers reporting more days of drinking and more instances of binging or drinking heavily.
Study author Conrad Woolsey pointed out that while there is a correlation between drinking energy drinks with alcohol and drunk driving, it may not mean that the addition of energy drinks causes the increase in drunk driving: “People who mix energy drinks with alcohol might be risk-takers in general,” he said. However, there is a plausible explanation for the observation, since the caffeine and sugar content of energy drinks could lead people to believe they are more sober than they actually are.
Other Research On Alcohol And Energy Drinks
There is other evidence suggesting that alcohol and energy drinks may impact on the brain more than alcohol alone. Notably, studies have established that the sugar, caffeine and herbal stimulants often found in energy drinks increase the levels of dopamine in the brain, a chemical closely tied to almost all addictions, including alcoholism. Woolsey notes that consuming energy drinks “does change the brain chemistry to make you more confident,” which may explain the greater rates of drunk driving in the combined users.
Other research has established that those who consume energy drinks with alcohol tend to drink more and suffer more negative consequences than those who drink alcohol alone. Specifically, adding energy drinks to a day of drinking increased the number of drinks consumed, extended the time spent drinking, increased estimates of blood-alcohol content and raised the chances people would subjectively judge themselves to be drunk.
However, the last point seems to contradict inherent assumptions about why energy drink and alcohol users would be more likely to drive drunk, because it seems they could correctly identify themselves as drunk. It may indeed be, as Woolsey suggested, that those who incorporate energy drinks are bigger risk takers in general (rather than energy drinks themselves having an effect), but more research is needed to establish whether causation exists and its direction.
Energy Drinks And Alcohol: A Red Flag, However You Look At It
From a practical perspective, though, it doesn’t really matter if this is simply correlation or genuine causation. Whether because they’re risk takers or whether due to the separate effects of energy drinks, somebody drinking energy drinks with alcohol is more likely to get behind the wheel and is more likely to drink to immediately dangerous levels. Future research will fill in the details, but for now, knowing that mixing alcohol with energy drinks appears to be a risk factor for drunk driving, binge drinking and general negative consequences is enough to encourage those at risk to think twice about their consumption and to tip loved ones off to potential issues.
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