Driving impairment due to sleepiness is exacerbated by low alcohol intake

J A Horne, L A Reyner, P R Barrett
Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2003, 60 (9): 689-92

AIMS: To assess whether low blood alcohol concentrations (BACs), at around half the UK legal driving limit, and undetectable by police roadside breathalysers, further impair driving already affected by sleepiness, particularly in young men, who are the most "at risk" group of drivers for having sleep related crashes.

METHODS: Twelve healthy young men drove for two hours in the afternoon, in an instrumented car on a simulated motorway. In a repeated measures, counterbalanced design, they were given alcohol or placebo under conditions of normal sleep or prior sleep restriction. Measurements were: driving impairment (lane drifting), subjective sleepiness, and EEG measures of sleepiness.

RESULTS: Whereas sleep restriction and alcohol each caused a significant deterioration in all indices, the combined alcohol and sleep restriction further and significantly worsened lane drifting (which typifies sleep related crashes). This combined effect was also reflected to a significant extent in the EEG, but not with subjective sleepiness. That is, alcohol did not significantly increase subjective sleepiness in combination with sleep loss when compared with sleep loss alone.

CONCLUSIONS: Modest, and apparently "safe" levels of alcohol intake exacerbate driving impairment due to sleepiness. The sleepy drivers seemed not to have realised that alcohol had increased their sleepiness to an extent that was clearly reflected by a greater driving impairment and in the EEG.

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