Can I drive the morning after drinking alcohol?
How you could be getting into your car over the drink drive limit without even realising.
- Taking risks
- Sleeping it off?
- You can't speed up the process
- Know your units
- Driving the morning after?
Research by road safety charity Brake found that more than half of young drivers and over a third of older motorists are risking lives by driving first thing in the morning after drinking a lot the night before. (1)
While far fewer people are taking the risk of drink-driving at night, more are getting into their cars in the morning. Many without realising they could still be over the legal limit to drive. (2)
The research suggests people are failing to understand that just because you’ve been to sleep, it doesn’t mean you’re no longer affected by alcohol.
“Many drivers who would not consider driving after a night in the pub fail to recognise the influence of alcohol on their body the next day, or simply choose to ignore its effects,” says Alice Granville, policy and research analyst from the Institute of Advanced Motoring. “Drivers need to take responsibility and use alternative means of transport after a heavy night drinking.”
Sleeping it off?
Whether it’s okay to drive the next morning depends on how much you’ve drunk – and if you’ve left enough time for your system to get rid of the alcohol.
“The amount of alcohol in your bloodstream depends on two things,” says Dr Paul Wallace, Drinkaware's Chief Medical Adviser. “The amount you take in, over what period of time and the speed at which your body gets rid of it.”
In general, alcohol is removed from the blood at the rate of about one unit an hour. But this varies from person to person. It can depend on your size and gender, as men tend to process alcohol quicker than women; how much food you’ve eaten; the state of your liver, and your metabolism (how quickly or slowly your body turns food into energy).
“Imagine you’re drinking until three or four in the morning and you wake up at 8 am,” says Dr Wallace. “If you’ve had six or seven units, you could still have several units of alcohol in your body when you start your day. This is because your body can only process around one unit an hour. With several units of alcohol still in your body you would still be over the drink drive limit”
You can’t speed up the process
There’s a mixture of mechanisms at work when your body processes alcohol, mainly enzymes in your liver doing their job of breaking down alcohol. This process can take longer if your liver is damaged or not working normally.
There’s nothing you can do to speed up the rate alcohol leaves your system.
“Having a cup of coffee or a cold shower won’t do anything at all to get rid of the alcohol,” says Dr Wallace. “They may make you feel slightly different, but they haven’t eliminated the alcohol in any way.”
Know your units
If you’re thinking about driving the morning after you’ve been drinking, it’s best to consider how much you had, and how late into the night it was before you finished your last drink.
Remember, the strength of different drinks can vary greatly. Some ales for example are 3.5%, but stronger continental lagers can be 5% ABV, or even 6%. White wines vary from around 8% to 15%. Use our unit calculator to find out how many units there are in your drinks.
There’s no fail-safe way to guarantee all the alcohol you’ve drunk has left your system, so it’s important not to take risks. As Dr Wallace points out, when you’re under the influence of alcohol at any level, the skills you need when you’re driving, such as hand eye coordination, are impaired to some extent. You’re more likely to have an accident.
“As well as the legal reasons, there are common sense reasons: you don’t want to be out on the road and putting yourself and others at risk.”
Tips if you know you are going to be driving the next day
- Drink within the daily unit guidelines the night before
- Opt for lower strength drinks: 4% ABV or lower beer; 12% ABV or lower wine; single spirit measures rather than doubles
- Alternate the alcoholic drinks you do have with soft drinks or water
- Stop drinking alcohol well before the end of the night so your body has time to process the alcohol before the following morning.
More information on drink driving
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(1) Brake website. Direct Line & Brake Reports on Safe Driving 2009-2012 Report 6: Young Drivers. Available at:http://www.brake.org.uk/assets/docs/dl_reports/DLreport6-YoungDrivers-pt1-Dec11.pdf
(2) Department for Transport website. Reported road casualties in Great Britain: annual report 2010 (published in September 2011). Available at:http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120926002851/http://www.dft.gov.uk/statistics/releases/road-accidents-and-safety-annual-report-2010/
Page updated: March 2014
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