Why your brain tells you it’s okay to drive drunk — and why it isn’t

University of Delaware professors help explain

Keali Underwood had a designated driver — her step-mom. She wasn’t planning on drinking; grief occupied her mind.

“I wasn’t going to do anything stupid,” Keali said.

Amidst the ordinary stresses of college applications and countless goodbyes that accompany any teenager’s senior year of high school, Keali had also suffered the loss of her boyfriend after a fatal car crash. The 17-year-old yearned to be known as anything other than “the girl whose boyfriend just died in a car accident.”

One night, Keali and a girlfriend decided to visit a boy in their grade. “I wasn’t a big partier in high school,” the Texas native recalls. “Even when I did get invited, my answer was usually ‘no.’ This one particular night I was like ‘Screw it, I’m gonna go.’”

The setting for this story is predictable, almost cliché; the boy’s parents were out of town, and the increasing headcount in his basement transformed the scene from a small hangout to a full-fledged banger.

Keali turned down a shot of vodka. She had to drive home. She turned down a second drink, even a third. And then she didn’t. After all, she had a designated driver.

Keali recalls: “I decided that instead of calling my parents, I had sobered up enough to drive home. Not a good idea, but I did it.” With her friend in tow, Keali made a 12-minute home drive from Lakeworth, Texas to her home in Saginaw. She made it home safely that night; the only repercussion she experienced was her step-mother’s outrage.

Six years later, Keali Underwood cites her inebriated drive home as one of her biggest regrets in life. “You never know when it’s going to be your time to go. And that very, very well could have been my time.” She remembers “everything to the sides of me were blurry… God was truly guiding that car.”

Perhaps she’s right — and fortunately, it wasn’t Keali’s time to go. But many others are not so lucky.

The Federal Highway Administration and the State Justice Department reports that an average of 1,5000,000 Americans are arrested every year for drunk driving. An average of 10,075 Americans meet their death in drunk driving accidents and 29 percent of deaths in car accidents are attributed to alcohol impairment.

This data begs the question:

Why does consuming a few too many drinks make us feel “lucky” — or worse — invincible?

Brain chemistry blames inhibitory neurotransmitters, specifically gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals are essential for human functioning — in moderation. For example, the brain’s normal release of serotonin maintains a stable mood.

Alcohol is a depressant; it increases the production of gamma-Aminobutyric acid, serotonin, and dopamine, while decreasing the production of glutamate. GABA is one of the brain’s chief neurotransmitters, responsible for reducing transmissions between nerve cells.

In layman’s terms, both dopamine and serotonin are responsible for keeping a person “feeling good.” Glutamate plays an important role in a person’s thought process, including learning, responding to stimuli, and the memory. Therefore, when an intoxicated person’s brain cells receive an abnormally low number of messages, they feel far better than “good” — perhaps “invincible” is the appropriate word. Additionally, their thought processes and response to stimuli are drastically decelerated.

GABA, Serotonin, Dopamine, and Glutamate are just four of the thousands of neurotransmitters that aid the human brain. Knowledge about these four chemicals alone offers a glimpse not only into why intoxicated people should never drive, but also why so many people do it.

The word “invincible” re-appeared several times throughout researching the answer to the titular question. For a precise understanding of a drunk person’s brain functioning, here is the definition of “invincible”: “too powerful to be defeated or overcome.”

Dr. Gail Transeau offered her assistance — and the term “invincible” appeared yet again.

Dr. Transeau has worked as a Psychiatric Nurse in Delaware for over 30 years, and has a Doctorate degree in Human Development. She specializes in the treatment of addiction, depression, trauma, and PTSD. Dr. Transeau offered her expertise about any commonalities that she had observed in patients who were treated for alcoholism, or mandated to seek treatment after a DUI.

Dr. Transeau explained: “As a general principle on this sort of thing you can figure one of six operating principles or a combination thereof: (1) Low IQ (2) youth and invincibility of 'it could never happen to me ' (3) lack of real life experience on the devastation that driving impaired can do and the thousands of lives destroyed by such foolish decisions (4) Poor or impaired impulse control (5) Selfishness beyond reason (6) The brain becomes impaired rather quickly when drinking and by the time it comes to leave or go home, that brain is often incapable of making wise, reasonable decisions.

Moral of the story: drink more than one alcoholic beverage and you're not safe driving. Plus, the road to emotional health is years away —if ever— if you inadvertently kill someone as a result of your driving.”

Young people — like 17-year-old Keali Underwood — are responsible for a large amount of DUI offenses. The Federal Highway Administration and the State Justice Department report that 25.3 percent of drunk driving culprits are 18-24 year olds. About 15 percent are aged 25-29.

Like Dr. Transeau said, most young people haven’t yet seen the damage that driving under the influence of alcohol can cause. Many of the top DUI offenders do not realize just how dangerous their crime is until it is committed. At best, they are forced to perform hours and hours of community service. At worst, lives are lost.

Jennifer Maslow, a Substance Abuse Counselor and Prevention Specialist at the University of Delaware, was the perfect interviewee. She was all-too-familiar with young people, alcohol, and their intertwined “invincibility.”

Maslow briefly recounted her experiences with young people struggling with alcoholism or drunk driving:

“We do not see many students here reporting driving under the influence… Every once in a while, we do have students report that they drive after “one or two” drinks, or that they wait until they “feel sober” and then drive. Sometimes these students are not remorseful, because they’re not aware that what they’re doing is just as dangerous as full-on drunk driving. With that, we have a discussion about how long it takes to sober up, how even one or two drinks impacts your ability to drive, the potential risks involved, including legal and physical, and we discuss other options they can take instead of driving.”

The phrase “feel sober” calls dopamine and serotonin back to mind. The aforementioned neurotransmitters were referred to as making people “feel good” — and the excess of these chemicals released after drinking might even make one “feel sober.”

The bottom line is: alcohol tricks a decelerated brain into thinking a person is bold, happy, competent — too powerful to be defeated or overcome. On the contrary, drunk people are vulnerable, unabashedly careless, and a danger behind the wheel. No exceptions — Keali, her friend, and over 1,500,000 Americans each year.

No one is invincible. It’s science.

University of Delaware