Almost one-third of all traffic-related deaths in the U.S. are a result of alcohol-impaired driving, with one death every 51 minutes as a result of driving under the influence (DUI). In 2010, 1.4 million Americans were arrested for driving with alcohol or narcotics in their systems, but what does it mean if you become one of them? Does it mean you’re addicted? If you’re familiar with addiction, you might expect that the answer isn’t absolutely clear-cut, but our general understanding of addiction and studies looking at drivers who’ve been arrested for a DUI provides a broad answer: it’s a good reason to take a good hard look at your relationship with alcohol (and/or drugs).
DUI: What Counts as “Under the Influence?”
Driving under the influence is defined as driving with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or higher. This is the legally defined limit, but this isn’t the point at which your driving becomes impaired: at a BAC of 0.02 percent, you are less able to divide your attention and perform two tasks at the same time, and at 0.05 percent, your coordination, reaction time and ability to track moving objects are all notably diminished. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 10 percent of all drivers report getting behind the wheel at some point in the previous year when they may have been legally intoxicated. However, being “legally” intoxicated isn’t the same as being impaired when driving—many more will have driven with a still-dangerous BAC of 0.05 percent. This point is unlikely to need emphasizing, but driving while intoxicated is dangerous to you, everybody in the car with you and everybody on or near the road at the same time as you.
Are DUI Offenders Usually Addicted?
Several studies have investigated people convicted of DUIs for signs of addiction, and the results are suggestive if not definitive. About one-third of all DUI convictions go to repeat offenders, indicating that many repeat offenders are continuing to drink in spite of already suffering serious negative consequences: a strong sign of addiction. Further evidence suggests that repeat offenders have impairments to their decision-making abilities that make it more difficult for them to recognize cause and effect—in other words, they might not realize that drinking is at the root of the problem. Another study of repeat offenders found that over half had some form of mental illness, such as major depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder or obsessive compulsive disorder. The most directly relevant evidence looked at just under 700 recipients of a DUI and found that almost half of them reported having difficulties with heavy drinking for several years prior to the conviction. In addition, 19 percent said they’d been heavy drinkers throughout their lives, and 25 percent had started drinking heavily again after one or more periods of reduced drinking or abstinence.
If I Get a DUI, Do I Have an Addiction?
The simple answer is: not necessarily, but it’s a warning sign. It’s entirely possible for moderate, non-addicted drinkers to make a bad decision and get a DUI, but even if you aren’t addicted, it’s still a sign to seriously think about your alcohol consumption. The reason getting a DUI is a significant sign of addiction comes down to how addiction is defined. Tolerance (needing to drink more to feel the same effects) and withdrawal (having unpleasant symptoms when you stop drinking) are both key signs of addiction, but one of the most important is experiencing serious negative consequences as a result of your drinking. Just like how the drinker who loses his job because of alcohol is more likely to be addicted than the drinker who manages to hold down his job (although this isn’t true in every case), the drinker who ends up in trouble with the law is more likely to be addicted than the one who drinks with no legal consequences. It’s unlikely that you were unaware you’d be driving later in the evening when you decided to start drinking, so the fact that you went over the legal limit implies that your desire to drink overrides your desire to keep yourself, others in your car and other people on the road safe. In short, even one DUI is a serious sign, and getting multiple DUIs is a much bigger sign, because it implies that even after being punished for a dangerous decision, you’re still willing to make it again. That’s the sort of power addiction holds over people.
A DUI Means It’s Time to Think About Your Drinking
You should treat a DUI as a wake-up call, whether you think you’re addicted or not. If you do realize that you might have a problem with alcohol, finding support is essential to regaining control over your life. It could actually be a blessing in disguise, giving you the motivation you need to make the first step toward a new, better, sober life.