How Drunk Driving Accidents Effect Those Involved: Physically, Psychologically and Emotionally

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Most people probably think that only those who have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08%, which is the legal BAC content limit set by all 50 states for driving under the influence (DUI), are likely to be intoxicated enough to cause a drunk driving accident. The truth is, any amount of alcohol in a person’s system can hamper his or her ability to drive, which could then lead to an alcohol-related vehicular accident that may injure or kill someone.

Alcohol and its impact on driving

The body absorbs alcohol into the bloodstream rather quickly but stays there for a much longer time than we think. As a depressant, alcohol naturally brings effects that are inherent to the said class of substances. Regardless of the amount consumed, alcohol impacts our vision, concentration, coordination, comprehension, reaction time, and ability to track other vehicles, road signs, and other objects on the road. It’s typical for people who drive with any amount of alcohol in their system to dismiss its effects and claim they can shake the buzz off with a strong cup of coffee or a cold shower. Alcohol, however, doesn’t work that way. It needs time to exit the body. If you insist on driving immediately after consuming alcohol, the likelihood of getting pulled over for a DUI or getting involved in a car crash will be high.

DUIs: Drunk driving toll

Despite numerous efforts to curb it, drunk driving remains a major contributor to the number of alcohol-related injuries and deaths worldwide. In the United States, 28 people die every day in car crashes involving alcohol-impaired people behind the wheel. And at more than $44 billion, the financial cost of vehicular accidents caused by drunk driving is utterly staggering. While it’s easy to calculate the economic cost of drunk driving accidents, many of us tend to overlook the fact that drunk driving accidents also exact a tremendous physical, psychological, and emotional toll on those who survive. They may have walked away from the crash, but they are often left with scars—both literal and figurative—that they will bear for the rest of their lives.

Physical effects of drunk driving accidents

Some would say that a person who survives a car crash caused by a drunk driver is lucky. However, whether or not the survivor actually had good fortune for surviving depends on the extent of the injuries he or she suffered. If all a victim sustains is a few minor bruises or scratches, then we can safely say that he or she is indeed lucky. Many drunk driving accident survivors, however, aren’t so fortunate. Take the case of Travis, a young man from Waco, Texas who was a passenger in a car driven by a drunk driver that crashed in 2010.  He was comatose for four months after suffering a traumatic brain injury in that accident. Two years after the accident, he was able to walk with assistance, but he remains unable to talk or eat. To make matters worse, the insurance company stopped paying for his alcohol rehab treatment. Far too many men, women, and children have stories similar to Travis. Because of the injuries they sustained in drunk driving accidents, their lives were upended, spending a fortune on medical bills yet still unable to return to work or simply live a normal life. They also suffer a lot of pain, with some going through it for the rest of their lives.

Most common injuries in drunk driving collisions

Any part of your body is likely to sustain an injury in a drunk driving accident, but the following are the most vulnerable: Legs and Knees – Victims suffer broken legs and shattered knees when the impact comes from the sides. Some survivors suffer complications that make walking or even just standing up difficult. With such injuries, returning to a previously active lifestyle could prove to be tough. Neck – The most common neck injury is whiplash, especially in low-impact crashes. Neck injuries from high-speed crashes, however, can cause severe injuries to the trachea or the larynx, which could lead to eating, moving, and breathing issues in the long-term. Chest – The chest is a particularly vulnerable part of your body when you’re involved in an accident at high speed. Wearing your seatbelt reduces some of the risks, but broken ribs and cracked sternums are still quite common in drunk driving crashes. Spinal cord – High-impact crashes can cause spinal injuries, which could cause partial or complete paralysis in victims. Brain – The brain is especially vulnerable to traumatic injury during drunk driving accidents. Traumatic brain injury (TBI) is classified into two types:

  1. Closed head TBI – Any injury to the head that does not pierce the skull.
  2. Penetrating head TBI – Caused by projectiles breaching the cranium and damaging brain tissue.

Drunk driving crash victims who survive the crash but sustain a TBI suffer consequences that include seizures, long-term and even permanent impairment of their physical and cognitive abilities, behavioral and emotional issues, paralysis, and coma.

Psychological effects of drunk driving accidents

A drunk driving accident is a terrifying event that often leads to physical harm and in many cases, loss of life. When people go through such an experience and survive, they run the risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Classified as a mental health problem, PTSD affects 3.6 percent of U.S. adults aged 18 to 54 (5.2 million people) every year. Drunk driving crash survivors who have PTSD experience flashbacks of what happened at the crash scene, often reliving the ordeal that has altered their lives forever. These unpleasant memories often emerge when they ride or drive a car, or when they see images that remind them of the accident, or even when reading about similar incidents in the paper or on the Internet.

Symptoms of PTSD

There are three main types of PTSD symptoms:

  • Flashbacks and nightmares that make them relive the trauma
  • Avoiding places, people, and activities that remind them of their horrible experience, and being emotionally numb
  • Jumpiness, irritability, quickness to anger, difficulty sleeping and concentrating, and other signs of increased arousal

The advent of PTSD symptoms may vary from person to person. Some experience them almost immediately after their traumatic ordeal. Others take months or even years before symptoms of PTSD begin to manifest. PTSD sufferers typically experience the symptoms for a month, while some go through it for longer periods. They may also disappear entirely one day and then reappear many years later.

Treatment for PTSD

Psychotherapy, also known as counseling or talk therapy, and medication are the two primary treatments for PTSD. Some doctors also recommend a combination of the two.

Emotional effects of drunk driving crashes

Being involved in a car accident caused by a drunk driver can give rise to a myriad of emotions that survivors and their families have to go through for a long time. Strong emotions like anger would consume the survivor, especially if he or she lost a close friend or family member because of a drunk driver’s negligence. In some cases, the survivor can be driven by this anger to think violent thoughts or even put them into action. Doing things that are out of character for the survivor is also a clear indication of emotional turmoil because of the crash. Since a drunk driving car crash is a traumatic experience, it is also but natural for a survivor to go through the seven stages of grief, particularly when the accident led to a loss of life. While in the midst of grieving, the survivor is also likely to experience feelings of isolation, difficulty sleeping, or poor appetite. Some even lose any concern about themselves, or any motivation to do anything at all. They withdraw from society, shunning the company of people. There are survivors who have sunk to the lowest depths of depression, with some of them never quite recovering. Living through a drunk driving car crash almost always leads to difficult times for the survivor, but many have managed to overcome their grief and have gone on to resume normal lives. Most have broken through with the help of a professional counselor or support group. For others, finding an outlet for their grief has helped them find closure and some measure of peace. Those outlets may be as simple as having a close friend or family to vent to, or simply writing about their experience in a journal (online and otherwise), in a newspaper or magazine article, or in a book. Even better is the fact that some survivors have dedicated their lives to promoting awareness about drunk driving and helping save more lives in the process. Drunk driving ruins lives and the damage it causes is not limited to the intoxicated driver and those directly involved in the resulting car crash. The friends and loved ones of both the offender and the victims are adversely affected as well. The physical, psychological, and emotional toll of a drunk driving accident is enormous, and we would do well to do what we can to make people aware of its dangers and its profound impact on our lives.

About the Author

Kevin Crowley is an experienced DUI lawyer at  Lane, Hupp & Crowley PLC, a team of criminal defense lawyers in Phoenix, Arizona. He enjoys writing about law and helping his clients handle their legal needs.