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Effect of Drunken Driving on Traffic Safety

Dr. VS Batra* and Dr. RB Lal Bedi**

* Thapar Institute of Eng & Technology, Patiala-147001 (Pb), India

** Jallandhar (Pb.) India


The driver's task on the road is very tough. During the journey, he has to overtake many slow vehicles, allow faster vehicles to overtake, move parallel to other vehicles in the adjacent lanes and Co-op. with heterogeneous traffic which cross the road at random. He has to maintain his presence of mind to take many important decisions in a split of a second. His task becomes all the more challenging in situation of high density traffic and at peak hours. A drunken driver cannot perform his task without risk and would endanger traffic safety.

Alcohol affects the Central Nervous System of the driver. Even at a level of 0.05 percent alcohol in blood, the sense of judgement is impaired and the ability to control steering is affected. It is an established fact that abuse of alcohol results in increased incidence of traumatic vehicular injuries and deaths.

Effect of drunken driving on traffic safety has been discussed in this paper. Recommendations have been made for reducing accidents on Indian Roads due to drunken driving.


The driver is the key factor is most of the accidents. His behaviour influences and controls the vehicle and he himself is controlled by his personality, training and attitude. Table 1 reflects the statistics of the causes of accidents of DTC city services in 1988-89.

Table 1
Causes of Accidents of DTC City Services in 1988-89

Causes of Accident No. of accidents Percentage of accidents
DTC drivers rash and negligence 1748 41.95
Non-DTC drivers' rash & negligence 1754 42.09
DTC drivers' error of judgement 58 1.39
Non-DTC drivers' error of judgement 158 3.79
Others 449 10.78
Total 4167 100.00

It can be concluded from Table 1 that the driver of vehicles is responsible for more than 80 percent of the total number of accidents. In a traffic situation a vehicle is no more safe if the driver is inefficient. Human failures are responsible for road accidents. A safe driving depends on following abilities of a driver.

  • Alertness in perceiving a danger in the road and reacting to it quickly.
  • Accuracy of vision.
  • A broad range of vision to take note of events taking place on either side of the road without turning head in either direction.
  • Ability to perceive distance between two moving objects and their relative position in space.
  • Capacity to distinguish accurately between three traffic light colours e.g. green, amber and red.
  • Ability to drive the vehicle safely during night hours.
  • Ability to recover the glare effect quickly.

Alcohol affects the central nervous system of the driver. Even at a level of 0.05 percent alcohol in blood, the sense of judgement is impaired and the ability to control steering is affected. Abuse of alcohol results in increased incidence of traumatic vehicular injuries and deaths.


Alcohol by pharmacological definition, is a drug and may be classified as a sedative, tranquillizer, hypnotic or anaesthetic, depending upon the quantity consumed. Of all the drugs, alcohol is the only drug whose self-induced intoxication is socially acceptable. Alcohol is rapidly absorbed from the stomach and small intestine. Within 2-3 minutes of consumption, it can be detected in the blood -the maximum concentration is usually reached in about one hour after consumption. The presence of food in the stomach inhibits the absorption of alcohol because of dilution.

Alcohol has a marked effect on the central system. It is not a "stimulant" as long believed, but a primary and continuous depressant. Alcohol produces psychic dependence of varying degrees from mild to strong. Physical dependence develops slowly. At a level of 0.05 percent alcohol in the blood, thought, judgement and restraint are loosened and sometimes disrupted. At a concentration of 0.1 p.c., voluntary motor action usually becomes perceptibly clumsy. In most states, legal intoxication ranges from 0.1 to 0.15 percent blood alcohol level. At 0.2 percent the function of entire motor area of the brain is measurably depressed; the parts of the brain that control emotional, behaviour are also affected. At 0.3 percent a person is commonly confused or may be come stuporous. At 0.4 to 0.5 percent a person is in a coma. At higher level the primitive centers of the brain, which control breathing and heart rate, are affected and death ensues. Persons with long-term histories of alcohol abuse, however, are able to tolerate much higher concentration of alcohol.

The effect of alcohol is that of a general anaesthetic. It depresses the control nervous system, affecting first the brain and then the spinal chord. As a result, perception are blunted co-ordination is impaired and, in particular the driver's power to evaluate his or her own performance is blunted. The driver so affected does not compensate sufficiently for his or her slower mental processes and tends to take more risks e.g. by carrying out ill judged overtaking maneouvers. Even moderate amount of alcohol prolong the reaction times to the sensation of sight, touch and hearing. Enhanced reaction time increases the distance to stop a vehicle. Relative probability of causing crash increases with rising blood alcohol levels.

The study carried out by British Medical Association found that drivers are more likely to be involved in accidents by the time they reached 80mg/100ml (80mg of alcohol per one of blood). The study also concluded that the increase in accident rise associated with high alcohol levels is greater for young and elderly drivers than for middle aged ones, while at low alcohol levels it is greater for those who drink rarely than for regular drinker.

Burns and Moskowitz stated in European journal of clinical pharmacology in 1980 that 10 percent to 15 percent degree of impairment is observed at BACs of 0.05 percent to 0.08 percent when subject has to perform a divided attention task of tracking and reaction. Studies undertaken at the University of Michigan reveals that accident risk increases as the BAC level rises (Table 2).

Table 2
Effect of Alcohol on Highway Safety (Study Done at University of Michigan)

BAC Level Effect
.02 to 0.04 Progressive deterioration
.04 to 0.05 Significant involvement in accident
.05 to 0.08 Dominant factor in Accident
.08 to 0.10 Accident risk 7 times as at BAC 0.01
.10 to 0.15 Accident risk 25 times as at BAC 0.01

I.R. Johnston hypothesizes that when impaired drivers enter curves, they devote so much attention to the steering tasks that other perception related to road curvature suffers, and they fail to reduce speed adequately.


Little or no recorded data is available on drunken driving in India. Attempt has been made to discuss the issue with DOCTORS from the departments of social preventive medicine, Forensic and Emergency Section. Similarly views have been collected from Drivers of Trucks, Taxies, Buses, Two Wheelers and Cars etc. The matter was also discussed with police officers and a few top officers of Government Roadways Transport Corporation. The summary of the information available on drunken driving in India is given below:

Drunken driving is prevalent among drivers of Trucks, Buses, Matadoors, Cars, Two Wheelers etc. after the sunset. There are at least 5 to 6 truck accidents on Sher Shah Suri Marg(National Highway) between Ambala Cantt and New Delhi (A stretch of 200km) at different locations daily. 50% of these accidents are said to be due to drunken driving. Most of the truck drivers indulge in drug abuse.

Car owners who attend night dinners/parties are drunk and indulge in rash driving and are unable to control the steering and meet the accident. About 60% and 65% of accidents are being caused by the drunken car and scooter drivers respectively during night hours (Table 3).

Table 3
Alcohol Related Accidents (Percent)

Vehicle Trucks & Metadors Cars Two Wheelers Pedestrians Cyclists Buses
Percent 40 60 65 5 5 2
Age-group (years) 15-20 20-30 30-45 >45    
Percentage 25 50 15 10    
Students involvement School (9th & 10th standard) and college students Professional colleges
Percent 10% 20%

Youngsters particularly students of 9th and 10th standards and college students mix drink with driving and meet accidents. Speed thrills but kills is very much applicable to this class of drivers. The incidence of drunk driving is on the increases among the students and younger professional drivers.

High society doused in club-culture is producing more and more alcoholic women today. Such women drivers are also endangering traffic safety.


A study reported under the title "High spirits take toll on Banglore roads" reveals that Banglore residents are having the time of their life on Saturdays and Sundays and then driving in high spirits to their death.

The pub capital of India - Banglore city, reports its highest number of road accident deaths on week ends between 6.00 p.m. and 10.00 p.m. and there is little reason to believe that this could be for reason other drunken driving, say the city policy, 579 road accident deaths in 1993, 106 were on Saturday nights and an average of 60-90 deaths were reported on the other days of the week. In 1994, there were 91 deaths on Sundays, 89 on Saturdays and an average of 70-80 on week days.

What is more, one of the toughest things to determine is whether an accident was because of drunken driving. The driver invariably absconds, only to be found later when the effect of any alcohol would have safely worn off. And the people at the accident spot concentrate on getting the injured to hospital rather than nabbing the driver responsible. "Say the police".

Besides the swank pubs which are the toast of the city, smaller bars have spring up along the high ways causing accidents to rise on these already dangerous roads.

There is not a single stretch of highway in India where no accident takes place during 24 hours. The most effective way to regulate traffic on highways is primarily to check drunk driving. The abundance of liquor shops, bars and 'ahtas' on highways are the major cause of the rising incidence of fatal accidents on highways. Trucks and Buses parked close to liquor shops on highways is common sight. In some bigger cities, there are special drives to detect drunk driving. But there is no such thing on highways. And also there is no equipment available to effectively introduce check on drunk driving. The old method of blowing into a balloon has become obsolete.

It is desirable that the excise department decides to shift their bars and liquor shops elsewhere to make highways safe for drivers and people travelling by road.


Though the laws to check the drunken driving do exist in India but there is need to effectively impose the same on the alcohol impaired drivers. The motor vehicle Act, 1939, amended up to 1989 contains a clause 117 which reads as:

"117 Driving by a drunken person or by a person under the influence of drugs - whoever while driving or attempting to drive a motor vehicle or riding or attempting to ride, a motor cycle - (a) has in his blood, alcohol in any quantity, howsoever small the quantity may be or (b) is under the influence of a drug to such an extent as to be incapable of exercising proper control over the vehicle shall be punishable for the first offence with imprisonment for a term which may extend to six months or with fine which may extend to two thousand rupees or with both; and for a second or subsequent offence, if committed within three years of the commission of the previous similar offence, with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three thousand rupees, or with both". The above law is very much effective if imposed. But the psychology of drunken drivers is such that they do away by paying some money to the catcher.


Till mid November, 1994, as quoted above, drinking and driving was not allowed to be mixed up. Any alcohol in the blood, howsoever, small the quantity has been an offence till November l994 but now after November 1994 the law has been amended. Now up to 30 milligrams of intake per 100m1 of blood has been permitted to driver before getting behind the wheel. A research agency conducted a survey in the capital to know the public reaction to the 1994-Amendment. 86% feel that this will increase the number of road accidents and 88% feel that this would render roads unsafe. The survey was conducted on telephone. A total of 297 respondents were interviewed between January 24 and January 26, 1995. The amendment may encourage people to mix drinking and driving.

Across the world governments have defined different acceptable blood alcohol levels. The swedes allow 20m1 of alcohol in the blood; the irish 80 and the U.S. 100. According to Mr. Hans Emblad, Director of the World Health Organization Programme on substance Abuse, there is no minimum threshold below which alcohol can be consumed without risk. According to this WHO specialist, the message should be "the less you drink, the better." Alcohol produces dependence causes concern and chronic liver diseases etc.

Delhi police feels that the existing breath analyser will have to be supplemented by more sophisticated equipment approved by the Union Government. Their present lot of tube and plastic bag breath analysers just indicate the presence of alcohol, the chemical within changing colour from yellow to green. They give no idea of the amount of alcohol. "Any body can be called a drunkard," says one official. Several Ayurvedic medicines, common cough syrups and other preparations, have alcohol. And a driver who had any of these may well fail the present test.


  1. Alcohol causes deterioration of driving skills even at a level of 0.05 percent BAC and the same progresses rapidly with rise in BAC. Relative probability of causing crash increases with rising blood alcohol levels.
  2. Drivers aged 16 to 21 years have highest rate of alcohol involved fatal crashes in United States even though lower average BACs were found than older drivers. But in India (where significant research in this field is lacking) this age group can be identified between 20 to 25 years.
  3. There is not even a single long-term benefit of alcohol as such though it gives short time benefits like it acts as appetizer, diuretic, increases body temperature and there is loss of hesitation temporarily. But all this at the cost of health ultimately.


Following recommendations are made for reducing accidents on Indian roads due to drunken driving:

  1. There is dire need to undertake experimental studies on drugs and driving for correct assessment of traffic safety situation on Indian roads.
  2. Blood alcohol screening should be routinely performed. Equipment to accurately measure blood alcohol concentration must be procured from other countries even if it is costly.
  3. Road side liquor shops, bars and 'ahatas' should be shifted elsewhere so that the same are inaccessible to drivers.
  4. Strict enforcement of Motor Vehicle Act on drunken driving is essential to check the same.
  5. Cost of alcohol beverages should be enhanced so that the drivers are unable to buy the same.
  6. Intensive drive against drunken driving is needed to promote road safety.


Traffic Engineering Committee of the IRC meeting held on 5th & 6th September, 1975, New Delhi.

Synopsis of Psychiatry (Behavioural Sciences/Clinical Psychiatry) A book written by Harold I. Kalplan, Professor of Psychiatry, New York et.al. p.396-411. Williams and Wilkins 428 P.S.Bltimore, Maryland 21202 USA.

Park's book of preventice and social medicine published by M/s Banarsidas Bhanot 1167, Prem Nagar Jabalpur(India) p.265 to 268.

Bhaskaran, p .et. al. "Role of drivers in the Goal of better road safety", Proceedings of international seminar on Road Safety" Srinagar, 1986, p-II to 12 published by IRC India.

Sabey B.E. A review of Drinking and Drug Taking in Road Accidents in Great Britain, TRRL Report SR 441, Crowtharne, Berks. The Transports and Road Research Laboratory, 1988.

Motor Vehicle Act. 1939 amendment - 1989.

Batry A. et al, "Alcohol and the adolescent Trauma Population Journal of Pediatric Surgery vol.25, no.9, (Sept)1990, p.944-949.

Batra, V.5. Bedi R.B. Lal, "Effective Analysis - A key to Traffic Safety", Proceeding of international conference on Traffic safety, New Delhi, 1991.

Chawla, Ravi and Batra, V.S. "Drunken driving and road safety" published in the proceedings of National Workshop on road safety April 10-11, 1992 organised at T.I.E.T., Patiala by Punjab P.W.D. (B&R) Branch and Thapar Corporate Research & Development Centre, Patiala.

Journal of Traffic Medicine, Supplement, Vol. 21, No.1, 1993. 349-424.

Mago, C. "Limit on alcohol consumption for drivers" an article published in the Tribune on January 20, 1995.

C. Mahesh, "Accident causative factors" A paper published in Indian Highways Vol. 23, No. 2, February, 1995.

Nambir, S.J. "High spirits take toll on Banglore roads." An article published in The Times of India on February 16,1995.


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