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Energy Drinks vs. Alcohol: Affects on Driving Ability

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Energy drinks are a relatively new product in the market, but do we really know how it affects our bodies and our abilities? We know that driving under the influence of alcohol is dangerous, but what risks are there when driving under the influence of energy drinks?

Alcohol is a depressant and can have psychological effects on your body that translate into physical deficiencies. A Blood Alcohol Concentration of .05 is enough to decrease inhibition, reaction time, and alertness. A BAC of 0.08 while driving is illegal in California. There are good reasons for this. At that level fine motor skills are impaired and movements are exaggerated. Imagine turning the wheel to avoid a pothole and crashing into a building.

Energy drinks, however, are picker-uppers. They are intended to be used by people who need a “jolt” of energy to stay active. Energy drinks rely on sugar and caffeine to wake people up and get them more alert. In a study done by Loughborough University Sleep Research Centre, Leicestershire, UK, J.A. Horne and fellow researcher L.A. Reyner found that energy drinks actually improved the driving of sleeping drivers. They tested 11 sleepy participants driving an interactive real-car driving simulator for two hours after the energy drinks were dispersed. They found that there were fewer instances of lane drifting and a decrease in reaction time.

But energy drinks have their down sides, too. Because they rely on sugar and caffeine, you are much more likely to have a “crash” reaction. After crashing, people can feel even worse than they did before the drink. Unlike “sports drinks”, “energy drinks” do not have electrolytes or protein that stimulate a sustained energy. Once the sugar is burned off, there is no more fuel. It also dehydrates you.

A very scary aspect of the energy drink is the claim that the highs and lows caused by the drinks can induce seizures. A case study in Phoenix, AZ, through the Department of Neurology at the Barrow Neurological Institute examines four patients that experienced acute seizures following heavy consumption of the drinks. Once they started abstaining from energy drinks, the occasions of seizure stopped.

Since the Arizona study only had four cases, it is easy to say that it could be isolated to those particular people’s body chemistry. I think energy drinks are too new to make a judgment on their effects on our driving ability. It is impossible to say how many collisions have been caused by people high on energy drinks because it is not something that is looked for.

I guess the moral of the story is this: everything in moderation. You can enjoy alcohol beverages and energy drinks, but when you have too much of either, there may be physiological consequences that can affect your driving ability.