It is well-known that consumption of alcohol impairs one’s judgment and ability to operate motor vehicles. But researchers at the University say that alcohol can also make the body more susceptible to severe injury in a motor accident.

Both passengers and drivers who had consumed alcohol before being involved in motor vehicle accidents were one and a half times more likely to experience serious injury than those involved in an accident who had not been drinking, the study showed.

Taking into account the severity of the accident, whether or not the person had a high alcohol tolerance and if they wore a seatbelt, the study showed that the injuries were more severe – even for those under the legal limit. The legal blood alcohol content in Michigan is 0.1.

“We found that those who had been drinking and involved in an average car crash had an injury severity that was 30 percent higher,” said Ronald Maio, associate professor of emergency medicine and director of the University Injury Research Center.

This research suggests that even with designated drivers, people are still at risk when they get into the car if they have consumed any amount of alcohol.

Though earlier studies on animals had suggested such results, this is the first in-depth study to examine the correlation between alcohol and injury severity.

Conducted at two hospitals in Michigan, the study examined 1,362 motor vehicle crash victims 18 years and older.

Twenty-one percent of the patients had consumed alcohol before their accident.

At this point, researchers are only able to speculate as to why alcohol makes the body more vulnerable to injury.

Maio suggested that somehow alcohol decreases the body’s, or the cell’s, resistance to kinetic energy, such as that experienced in a car crash. But he added that more research is necessary to determine the exact cause.

“I feel that society has very much underestimated the effects of alcohol on the injuries of those in accidents,” Maio said. “Not only is it the cause of many accidents, but it increases the severity of the injuries.”

Maio and his colleagues hope their research will increase public awareness of the degree to which alcohol puts people at risk and improve treatment of those patients who have consumed alcohol prior to being injured.

“I think that a designated driver is an excellent idea, but it still doesn’t cover all the bases,” Maio said. “People who have been drinking still run a risk of making their injuries worse.”

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 17,448 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2001. But Maio pointed out that this number only accounts for those who have been involved in a crash where at least one of the drivers had consumed alcohol.

“This does not include the number of other people in the car who had also been drinking,” he said, adding that this is a good example of how society needs to take a closer look at the degree to which alcohol affects safety.

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