Being the Designated Driver Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You’re Safe

Being the Designated Driver Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You’re Safe

We are closing in on the end of December’s National Impaired Driving Prevention Month and heading for one of the biggest drinking nights of the year – New Year’s Eve. So it’s a good time to remind ourselves that just because a person steps up to be the designated driver for a carful of tipsy passengers doesn’t necessarily mean they are safe. Why? Drinking behaviors. Drinking behaviors occur when a person drinks more alcohol than their liver can process, which in turn changes how their brain functions. These changes in brain functioning are the cause of drinking behaviors.

What are Drinking Behaviors and Why Should a Designated Driver Be Concerned?

They are the typical behaviors people often excuse because “s/he’d had too much to drink,” such as:

  • Insisting on inane, circular arguments or conversations that go nowhere and often get mean or hurtful.
  • Losing control of judgement and reasoning and doing things one just wouldn’t do if sober.
  • Acting as if “present” and somewhat in control but really being in an alcohol-induced blackout, from which nothing (or very little) will be remembered of one’s actions tomorrow.
  • Unintended sex, date rape or sexual assault.
  • Physical assault.
  • Passing out.

So what’s the big deal about a passenger’s drinking behaviors for the designated driver?

Secondhand drinking – the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others.

  • Take Joanne, for example…
    Joanne was the designated driver for her company’s Happy Hour one evening. But Joanne lost control of her car when Jackson, her very drunk co-worker, grabbed the steering wheel, shouting, “Turn here!” Jackson had unclipped his seatbelt just moments before and was thrown from Joanne’s car when it rolled. He is quadriplegic now; Joanne has moved back in with her folks and is on heavy pain meds for her injuries. Jackson’s drinking behaviors directly affected Joanne, and they sent secondhand drinking ripple effects deep and wide throughout his and Joanne’s families, as well. His parents changed jobs in order to share the 24/7 caregiving Jackson needs and have spent all of their savings on medical bills and legal issues. His brother’s marriage ended in divorce because he was always at Jackson’s side to “be there” for his brother. Joanne’s mother quit her job and her father is so, so angry. Both constantly worry and wonder if Joanne will ever get married, have children or become the vibrant, talented Joanne she was – before the accident.

Granted, the example shared for Joanne carries the secondhand drinking ripple effects far deeper than we generally think to go (we’d typically stop with just Joanne). But it’s something to think about. How are you going to get your drunk passenger(s) into the house? Should you leave them unattended once you do – what if they stop breathing or start vomiting in their passed out state after you leave? Will you be at fault if something happens? What if your drunk passengers are so rowdy, you turn to yell at them to stop and cause your car to swerve into the bike lane, barely clipping the car parked there, at which point you get pulled over. The police officer can smell the alcohol when you roll down the window and asks, “Have you been drinking?” One thing leads to another, and the police find an open bottle in the car (your friend’s, of course) – what does that mean for you – a ticket, a court appearance, an increase in your car insurance?

How to Stay Safe As the Designated Driver

Here are three suggestions:

1.  Know what’s considered moderate drinking (aka “normal” drinking) and the common standard drink measurements so you’ll have an idea of what you’re dealing with. According to the NIAAA, Rethinking Drinking website, moderate drinking is defined as:

  • For Women:  No more than 7 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 3 of the 7 in a day
  • For Men:  No more than 14 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 4 of the 14 in a day.
  • A standard drink is defined as 5 ounces of table wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of liquor (e.g., vodka). Often “drinks” served at parties or in bars or restaurants contain more than one standard drink.
  • To find out about the number of standard drinks in various cocktails or alcoholic beverage containers, check out Rethinking Drinking’s Drink Calculator and Number of Standard Drinks in Common Drink Containers.

2. Understand that it takes specific enzymes in the liver approximately one hour to metabolize (rid the body) of the ethyl alcohol in one standard drink (and it’s the ethyl alcohol chemical that changes brain function). While “waiting” for its turn out the liver, the ethyl alcohol “sits” in various body organs that are highly vascularized (have lots of blood vessels), like the brain. Alcohol “sitting” in the brain is what changes brain function and therefore a person’s behaviors.

The ONLY thing that sobers a person up is time – a person cannot vomit or sweat or urinate it out and coffee, taking a walk or cold shower will not stop a person’s blood alcohol from rising. Not only that, but people metabolize alcohol at different rates depending on a number of variables, such as weight, gender, whether taking medications, stage of brain development (youth brains handle alcohol differently), whether food was eaten (though food won’t absorb the alcohol, rather it just slows how quickly it enters the bloodstream), and genetics.

Here are a few excerpts from the California DMV chart to show where a person’s BAC might fall after having “a couple of drinks” based on the weight variable alone:

  • 110-129 lbs:  if you consume 2 or more standard drinks within 1 hour or less, your BAC is probably .08% or higher
  • 130-149 lbs:  if you consume 3 or more standard drinks within 2 hours or less, your BAC is probably .08% or higher
  • 170-189 lbs:  if you consume 4 or more standard drinks within 2 hours or less, your BAC is probably .08% or higher

3.  Set something of a limit. You can make it known upfront, for example, that if you think anyone is too far gone and a risk to their or your safety, you will ______________________ (e.g., call an ambulance if you feel they’re dangerously intoxicated – remember, blood alcohol continues to rise long after the person has stopped drinking OR call them a cab). You do not have to risk your safety to protect another person’s “right” to drink, nor do you have to tolerate their drinking behaviors if they put your safety at risk.

Bottom Line

Raise awareness. Drinking behaviors are not cool, nor does being a designated driver necessarily keep you safe. But if friends talk this through before a drinking outing, they can drink and enjoy but maintain some measure of control and keep everyone safe.

Lisa Frederiksen

Lisa Frederiksen

Author | Speaker | Consultant | Founder at
Lisa is the author of hundreds of articles and 11 books, including "If You Loved Me, You'd Stop!," "Addiction Recovery: What Helps, What Doesn't," and "Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions." She is a national keynote speaker with over 25 years speaking experience, consultant, and founder of She has spent more than 14 years studying 21st century brain research in order to write, speak, and consult on substance use disorders prevention, intervention and treatment; mental disorders; addiction (aka substance use disorders) as a brain disease; adolescent addiction treatment vs adult addiction treatment; effective treatment for co-occurring disorders (having both a substance use and mental disorder); secondhand drinking | drugging; help for the family; and related subjects. In 2015, she founded SHD Prevention, providing training and consulting to companies, public agencies, unions, nonprofits and other entities to address the workplace impacts of employee secondhand drinking and alcohol misuse.

4 Responses to Being the Designated Driver Doesn’t Necessarily Mean You’re Safe

  1. Sound advice as always Lisa. Preparing ahead can save lives.

  2. Dave Cooke says:

    With all the education, risks, and transportation options (i.e., Uber)available, it amazes me that we still need to continue to remind people about being impaired and driving and being accordingly responsible. These are great tips, Lisa. I am simply scratching my head at the fact it is still necessary. Thanks for being committed to this!

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