Experienced older drivers are typically viewed as less likely to cause accidents than younger motorists. However, as these drivers age, they undergo various physiological changes that increase their vulnerability to the effects of alcohol. As any drunk driving accident attorney Las Vegas understands, even low levels of alcohol consumption can make these drivers more prone to cause accidents.

Decreased tolerance

According to the National Institutes of Health, the body inevitably loses tolerance for alcohol with age. As a result, older adults are more susceptible to undesirable side effects of alcohol, such as loss of coordination. Even small amounts of alcohol may produce noticeable effects.

This increased sensitivity to alcohol occurs for a few reasons. Alcohol metabolization rates slow with age, so older adults remain intoxicated for longer periods of time. The amount of water present in the body and bloodstream also decreases with age. Consequently, older adults reach higher blood alcohol concentrations when they drink the same amount as younger people.

Impairment after one drink

In 2014, a study published in the journal Psychopharmacology explored the effects of small amounts of alcohol on driving performance. According to The Minnesota Post, the study focused on drivers between ages 25 and 35 and drivers between ages 55 and 70. The researchers found that the older participants showed significantly more impairment than the younger participants.

The participants completed a driving simulation once while sober and once after drinking a cocktail or placebo drink. The cocktails, which took factors such as body weight and gender into account, were designed to bring each driver’s BAC to either .04 or .065. The researchers found that, even at these lower levels of intoxication, the older drivers struggled to maintain steady speeds and steer responsively.

As a drunk driving accident attorney Las Vegas might agree, these findings were troubling for a few reasons. Every participant was a self-described social drinker who was accustomed to the effects of alcohol. Additionally, the simulation was considerably less challenging than driving; participants simply navigated a winding road with minimal secondary stimuli. During complex real-life situations, these participants may have exhibited even worse impairment.

Effects of medication

Troublingly, some older adults may suffer even more severe impairment from alcohol due to their medications. According to the NIH, many medications can linger in the body, causing interactions even when alcohol is consumed hours later.

As any drunk driving accident attorney Las Vegas is aware, many everyday medications can have harmful effects. Drivers who consume alcohol after using allergy or cold medicines may experience drowsiness and reduced coordination. Pain relievers, sleep aids and prescriptions that treat depression or anxiety may also combine poorly with alcohol. After taking these substances, drivers may experience fatigue, memory loss or impaired coordination.

Limited evidence indicates that many older adults are at risk for experiencing these harmful side effects. According to the NIH, one-third of prescription spending in the U.S. is attributable to adults over age 65. This is a disproportionate figure, since these adults only represent 13 percent of the population. Older adults are also more likely to take multiple prescriptions. These factors may increase the risk of accidents and serious personal injuries, even when these adults consume alcohol in moderation.

Lack of awareness

In some cases, older adults might not even realize they are endangering others by driving while impaired. Many people may overlook the potential for interactions between their medications and alcohol. The NIH also states that, due to cognitive issues, older adults may be more likely to inadvertently misuse their medications. This may raise the risk of adverse interactions.

The researchers who conducted the simulation study observed that the findings were alarming because older adults may also underestimate their intoxication. As a drunk driving accident attorney Las Vegas might note, changes in ability to process alcohol occur gradually. This can make these changes difficult to notice. Many older adults also may be accustomed to driving after “just one drink.” These drivers may fail to account for the dangerous effects of aging and medication use.

A growing threat

This possibility is worrisome, given the increasing population of older drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports the following facts about the number of older drivers in the U.S.:

  • Older adults now account for a larger proportion of the overall population. They also tend to keep their licenses longer than past generations.
  • From 1997 to 2012, the number of people over age 70 who held driver’s licenses rose 30 percent. The proportion of licensed drivers in this age group also increased during the same period.
  • The number of adults over the age of 70 is anticipated to rise from 30.1 million in 2013 to 53.7 million in 2030. Experts have expressed safety concerns, since drivers start experiencing higher rates of crash involvement after age 70.

Various factors, including cognitive changes and loss of visual acuity, can already put older drivers at risk for accidents. The body’s increasing sensitivity to alcohol may represent another significant but frequently overlooked risk factor.

Assessing negligence

Sadly, statistics suggest that drunk driving accidents will affect many people in Nevada this year. In 2013 alone, 8,800 drivers were arrested in the state for driving under the influence, according to the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility. Tragically, 79 lives were lost in alcohol-related accidents the same year.

When these accidents occur, a driver’s ignorance of his or her impairment is not a valid defense. Drivers who cause accidents while intoxicated may be considered negligent, regardless of whether they exceeded the legal BAC limit. As a result, compensation may be available to accident victims. These victims may benefit from speaking with a drunk driving accident attorney Las Vegas to better understand their legal options.