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  • Writer's pictureDr. Keith McGahey

Whiplash Myth: Drunk Drivers Don't Get Hurt In Car Crashes

A man holding his head looking for a chiropractor near me

There is a widely held belief that alcohol keeps people from being hurt during a car crash. And that sober people don’t have the benefit of that ‘protection’. In fact, most of us have seen a headline where a drunk driver runs into another vehicle, killing the occupants of the other vehicle while escaping without a scratch.

This notion comes from the idea that a drunk driver is more relaxed during a crash, and thus better able to withstand injury. This just isn’t true – I wrote about this in an earlier whiplash article: Should I Relax During A Car Crash? In reality, it’s not good to be relaxed during a crash, and there is certainly no benefit to being drunk during a crash, not for anyone involved.


Dr. Keith McGahey has been a Chiropractor in Bellevue for over 25 years. Dr. McGahey has advanced training in whiplash & spinal trauma from the Research Institute of San Diego, and served on the board of the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington. Dr. McGahey has been featured on King 5 News, was nominated for Top Alternative Provider by Seattle Magazine, and received the award for Outstanding Clinical Excellence from Western States University.


Alcohol - Protection From Whiplash?

So what effect does alcohol have on car crash victims? Does it have a protective effect that helps people survive crashes? Or at least help limit the extent of a whiplash injury?  There have been some great studies that have attempted to answer these specific questions. And the results have been confirmed by experts across a number of fields. This research has shown that alcohol actually has a doubly negative effect – when you drink and drive you’re more likely to crash, and more likely to suffer a worse injury if you do crash, including whiplash.

FACT: Alcohol Increases Your Likelihood of Being Involved in a Car Crash

Studies have shown that drinking prior to driving increases the likelihood of being in a crash. It impairs coordination and judgement, and slows reflexes.  And the effects increase as the amount of alcohol consumed increases. One study found the likelihood of crashing increased 7-fold when the driver was at the legal limit, and nearly 15-fold at twice the legal limit. Drunk drivers are also more prone to going without seat belts, which can increase the risk of whiplash injury and death.

So we know that alcohol impairs your ability to drive a car, and makes crashing more likely. And this increases your chances of suffering a whiplash or other injury. But what happens after a crash has occurred? What is the relationship between alcohol and car crash injuries? Is it helpful or harmful? I’m glad you asked!

FACT: Alcohol Increases the Severity of Injuries Once a Crash Has Occurred

A study of more than 1 million drivers found that a driver who had been drinking was more likely to suffer serious injury or death than one who hadn't. They are also  twice as likely to suffer more severe brain injury than non-drinkers. Another study found that drunk drivers are nearly four times more likely to suffer fatal injuries from a car crash than sober drivers. So what is it about alcohol that makes the potential for injury worse? What happened to that protective effect?

Normally when you’ve been injured, your body takes necessary steps to keep you safe. But alcohol interferes with your body’s protective mechanisms when you’ve been badly injured. It decreases your body’s tolerance to low blood pressure and shock, interferes with blood clotting, and prolongs inflammation.  It can increase the amount of injury to your brain, spinal cord and internal organs. It also increases your risk of dangerous or irregular heartbeat after striking the steering column or airbags. But what if our impaired driver survives the crash and makes it to the hospital?

FACT: Alcohol Decreases Your Chance of Surviving A Car Crash

It may not get much better at the hospital.  Alcohol can interfere with proper patient assessment, making diagnosis of injuries more difficult. Important medication may have to be withheld because of dangerous drug/alcohol interactions. If surgery is needed it may have to be delayed because of the risks associated with alcohol and anesthesia. An impaired state can also mask the symptoms of brain injury.

It’s pretty easy to see the message here:  there is no protective effect from alcohol in a car crash. It increases the likelihood of causing a crash, and increases the risk of serious injury and death following a crash. So do yourself a favor and stay off the road if you’re going to be drinking. You might even consider staying off the roads during holidays when others are drinking. And if you are unlucky enough to be involved in a crash, make sure you get checked out by someone who specializes in whiplash injury (a chiropractor is a great option). It’s important, and could save you some grief, and pain down the road.

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