Study shows why drunken drivers are more likely to survive a crash
By Melissa Evans
The Daily Breeze
TORRANCE, Calif. — It's one of the most common statements Tina Pasco hears from relatives of people who have been killed by drunken drivers: "- And, of course, the drunk driver survived."
"It always gets down to the why not them? Why my loved one?" said Pasco, executive director of the Los Angeles chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "It's a very sad and difficult question."
It likely won't be much consolation to these families, but Torrance-area researchers may have arrived at a scientifically based answer.
In a study to be released todaythurs, investigators with the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute found that intoxicated patients do, in fact, survive traumatic injury more often than those who are sober.
Ironically, alcohol appears to act as a buffer that inhibits certain stress-related chemicals released when a person suffers major injury.
"We're not in any way encouraging people to drink; drinking is one of the leading reasons why peopleup in the trauma unit to begin with," said Dr. Christian de Virgilio, a trauma surgeon and researcher who conducted the study. "What we're hoping is that this might lead to looking into whether alcohol might be utilized in some way to increase survival."
Researchers analyzed data from 7,985 trauma patients brought to County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center near Torrance from 2004 to 2008.
When looking at the raw numbers — not taking into account the severity of injury - researchers found that 1 percent of drunk patients died, and 7 percent of sober patients died.
When the data was adjusted for age of patients and severity and type of injury, a much more accurate comparison, they found that drunk patients had a 65 percent greater chance of survival.
The results will appear in the October issue of The American Surgeon, a scholarlyscholastic journal.
The local study comes on the heels of a separate analysis released in late September by physicians at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Looking at national data from 14,419 patients, they found that 7.7 percent of patients with alcohol in their system died of major head injuries, compared withto 9.7 percent of sober patients - a statistically significant difference.
Physicians there, too, concluded that "the finding of reduced mortality in traumatic brain injury patients with preinjury ethanol raises the intriguing possibility that administering ethanol to patients with brain injuries may improve outcome," according to the study.
De Virgilio and others say more research needs to be done to isolate the exact cause of this finding, but they suspect it has to do with the body's chemistry.
When stressed, the body releases chemicals that restrict certain receptors in the brain. It appears that alcohol acts as a buffer to counteract this reaction, particularly in the receptors that allow the body to heal, he said.
De Virgilio noted that chronic alcoholics, specifically those with liver and kidney damage, do far worse than sober patients. The liver controls a number of healing functions, such as blood clotting.
"It appears the only benefit comes from an acute, one-time use (of alcohol)," he said.
About 8 percent of the trauma patients studied at Harbor-UCLA had alcohol in their system, and they were extremely intoxicated. The median blood-alcohol level of these patients was 0.26, more than three times the legal limit for driving.
The local study took into account all types of trauma injuries: gunshot wounds, stabbing, blunt-force trauma due to car crashes, and other accidents.The vast majority of alcohol-
related deaths, however, are linked to car crashes. In 2008, an estimated 11,773 people in the United States died from drunken driving accidents, according to MADD.
"We do know that life isn't fair," said Pasco of MADD. "Our hope is always that the innocent aren't unduly penalized because of the actions of others."
Perhaps one silver lining to the findings: De Virgilio and other researchers plan to seek more research funding to study how alcohol might be used in the emergency department to save lives.
"We're still a ways from that, but the prospect is intriguing," he said.
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