Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Drinking Problems and DWI Convictions

It is difficult for many of us to understand why anyone would operate a vehicle while drunk or under the influence of another drug. It is even more perplexing to learn that someone we know has been convicted of this crime multiple times. It seems like a matter of simple common sense to take a taxi or get a ride with a friend when one is impaired. Why do some people have difficulty doing this? There are many potential reasons, ranging from ignorance to recklessness to self-destructive impulses. One common factor among people with DWI convictions is a problem with drinking.

"Alcoholism" has been defined many different ways by many different individuals and organizations, depending on their personal views and experiences. The DSM IV-TR, the current manual that US psychologists use when making diagnoses, attempts to quantify mental health issues by defining them in terms of observable, measurable behaviors. Based on the information they have gathered, the authors of the DSM IV-TR offer two related but distinct drinking problems: abuse and dependency.

Alcohol abuse is the more mild of the two, although it can still have very serious consequences. A person is abusing alcohol if they continue to drink to excess after suffering some sort of consequence for it. The consequence(s) may be legal, such as a DWI conviction; emotional, such as loss of self-respect or damaged relationships with other people; financial, such as spending too much money on liquor or legal fees; or health-related, such as liver damage. A person who is abusing alcohol will not suffer physical symptoms of withdrawal when they cannot drink; they simply have no desire to quit. This may be because alcohol is a way for them to self-medicate a separate emotional problem, such as depression or anxiety. It may be that they feel alcohol gives them something they are lacking in their life, such as self confidence, a sense of security or happiness.

Alcohol dependence is similar to alcohol abuse, with one crucial addition: physiological symptoms. This can mean increased tolerance, requiring the person to drink more to get the same effects, or physical withdrawal. Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal include shakiness, anxiety or irritability, nausea and difficulty concentrating, among others. In the most severe cases, a person might experience what is known as the DT's - a period of intense distress and visual hallucinations.

These difficult emotional problems can make it difficult for a person to resist the temptation to drink at social events, and increase their temptation to drink alone, making it harder to simply get a ride home with a friend. The emotional effects of a drinking problem, such as depression and low self-esteem, also make people more likely to engage in risky behavior.

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Driving While Intoxicated

Driving while intoxicated is the act of operating and/or driving a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs to the degree that mental and motor skills are impaired. It is illegal in all jurisdictions within the U.S. The specific criminal offense is usually called driving under the influence (of alcohol and/or other drugs, DUI), and in some states driving while intoxicated (DWI), operating while impaired (OWI), or operating a vehicle under the influence (OVI). Such laws may also apply to boating or piloting aircraft.

In the United States the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that 17,941 people died in 2006 in "alcohol-related" collisions, representing 40 percent of total traffic deaths in the US. Over 500,000 people were injured in alcohol-related accidents in the US in 2003. NHTSA defines fatal collisions as "alcohol-related" if they believe the driver, a passenger, or an occupant of the vehicle (such as a pedestrian or pedalcyclist) had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.01 or greater. NHTSA defines nonfatal collisions as "alcohol-related" if the accident report indicates evidence of alcohol present. NHTSA specifically notes that "alcohol-related" does not necessarily mean a driver or nonoccupant was tested for alcohol and that the term does not indicate a collision or fatality was caused by the presence of alcohol. On average, about 60 percent of the BAC values are missing or unknown. To analyze what they believe is the complete data, statisticians simulate BAC information. Drivers with a BAC of 0.10 are 6 to 12 times more likely to get into a fatal crash or injury then drivers with no alcohol.