Alcohol and drugs usage over the festive season

As the countdown to the festive season begins, many companies will be hosting their work Christmas parties. Although this is a time for joy it's important to note that with these festivities comes the rising concern for alcohol misuse - a serious risk to those who drive for work and potentially hugely costly for their employers.

Even more seriously, the festive season may result in some individuals taking illegal drugs. As with alcohol, combine such misuse with driving and the risks to driver welfare, the safety of other members of the public, and employer reputation can be extremely severe.

It has recently been revealed that Britain drinks the most alcohol in comparison to the rest of the western world - with the average Briton drinking 108 bottles of wine a year. At the same time, a report by the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction earlier in the year, revealed that Bristol is the cocaine capital of Europe and an average of 23 kg of the white powder is consumed every day on the streets of Britain.

Christmas parties have become more and more elaborate over the years and many will be unaware that legally they are still at ‘work'.  Whilst the majority of employees behave responsibly, it is important for employers to be aware of the risks posed by even one individual choosing to drink and drive, or consume illegal substances.

The Government guidelines state the drink-driving limit in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is 80 milligrams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood, 35 micrograms per 100 millilitres of breath or 107 milligrams per 100 millilitres of urine. Individuals tend to be unaware of how many units of alcohol they actually consume, with the body processing alcohol at around 1 unit per hour, many drinkers consume more units than they realise. 

Common misconceptions on the effects of alcohol and drugs on driving

There are many common misconceptions around the impact of alcohol and drugs on driving capabilities and sobering-up. For instance, alcohol in your system can have an effect on; reaction times, information processing, vision, and judgement - taking potentially dangerous risks you wouldn't normally take. Although it is possible to consume a small amount of alcohol and still be legally ‘under the limit', concentration and the ability to react can still be significantly impaired.

Many employees who drive for work underestimate the effects of alcohol, especially how long the substance can stay in their system. In fact, it is estimated that 40% of drivers have driven the following morning unaware that they were still over the limit. In addition, if an excessive amount of alcohol is consumed in the evening, it is quite possible you would be unable to drive not just the following morning, but also the rest of the day.

There are a number of sobering-up myths which have become wildly recognised and accepted in society. First, the idea that coffee sobers you up. In reality, coffee may make you feel more awake but it has no effect on the level of alcohol. As alcohol is a sedative - slowing down processes, the effects of consuming caffeine - a stimulant, can often be mistaken for sobriety.

Another common misconception is that consumption of food will ‘soak up the alcohol' and sober you up. However, eating food can actually slow the rate at which your body absorbs alcohol, so it can remain in your system for even longer. Lastly, despite popular belief, your body will process alcohol at the same speed whether awake or asleep, therefore the common advice for ‘a good night's sleep' is rendered futile.

Although these ‘tricks to sobering-up' may, in some cases, mask the effects of alcohol, none of them actually help reduce an individual's blood-alcohol level. In fact, to sober up, the only genuine solution is time.

Similarly, drug users often convince themselves they don't feel the effects of substances, or rather that drugs make them more relaxed and therefore better drivers - this is not true. The effects of drugs can often be misconstrued, for example cocaine has effects on driving after usage making users feel invincible but at the same time reducing their ability to make rational decisions, continuing to affect behaviour days after use. Additionally, amphetamines or ‘speed' can often be tempting for those who need to stay awake, however these drugs can lead to restlessness and hyperactivity causing an individual to be impatient and take risks. 

And of course, given that drugs are illegal in the first place, there is no window of driving possibility whatsoever. An employee who is caught driving under the influence of illicit substances has broken the law, pure and simple. This could destroy the reputation of their organisation, have a detrimental impact on their own career, and put other road users at risk.

Business costs of driving while under the influence

Drivers are commonly aware of the penalties for drug or drink driving; a minimum 12 month driving ban, a criminal record, and a fine of up to £5000 or up to 6 months in prison.

Furthermore, in instances involving death or serious injury, the penalties are likely to be much more severe, with some drivers receiving lengthy prison sentences, longer driving bans, and having to retake their driving test before getting their licence back.

Penalties for driving under the influence not only effect the individual but also the business they work for - especially those required to drive. The loss of an employee due to a driving ban can have a significant effect on the company's productivity, furthermore it can also be costly and time consuming - in the case of filling the job vacancy and reputational damage.

Employers have a duty of care for the health safety and welfare of employees whilst they are at work - including when employees are driving for work. It is essential that employers communicate good practice in the company's driving for work policy to ensure the right safeguards are put in place over the festive season. Make sure your drivers are fully aware of the issues around drink and drug use, and the impact on the user's ability to drive, to ensure your staff, other road users and the business itself stays safe this Christmas.