Checkpoints for Aftercrime: Hangover test could nab groggy motorists
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Checkpoints for Aftercrime: Hangover test could nab groggy motorists

Sharon Kirkey
CanWest News Service/ August 9, 2004

"Morning after drivers" who climb behind the wheel after tying one on the night before could soon face the prospect of roadside checks for DWH -- driving while hungover.

A U.S. company says it is in the final stages of developing a test capable of detecting, and measuring the severity of hangovers, even after a person's body has eliminated all traces of alcohol.

Spirit Sciences USA, the Los-Angeles-based makers of RU-21, a dietary supplement pitched as a tonic for alcohol-related problems, from premature skin wrinkling to "post-intoxication syndrome," says its hangover test detects acetaldehyde, a product produced when the liver breaks down alcohol. Developed by Russian scientists, the test is about four to six months away from release, says Mandy Barton, director of non-profit campaigns for Spirit Sciences. If it works, the company plans to donate more than 200 of the devices to U.S. police departments.

"If driving with a hangover ever becomes an offence, the test could earn the same legal status as today's Breathalyser," the company says in a statement.

Meanwhile, the company has launched a website -- www.stopdwh.org -- "to serve as a destination for the first public awareness campaign of its kind in the U.S." about the dangers of driving while hungover, Barton says.

While a hangover detector may sound far-fetched, scientists in Sweden have developed a test that measures two different hangover "markers," including methanol, another alcohol formed during the fermentation process that takes far longer to break down.

Studies have shown the severity of hangover symptoms rises in lockstep with methanol levels in the blood (and drinks that contain more methanol, such as certain brandies and whiskies, are more likely to produce hangovers).

In addition, British police have begun testing a hand-held "impairment detector" that can tell, via reaction times and concentration skills, whether a person is impaired by drugs, hangovers or too little sleep, according to New Scientist magazine.

But one of the world's top hangover researchers says it is still not clear just how much the "residual effects" of a night of drinking impairs thinking and mentally controlled motor functions the morning after.

HANGOVERS VARY

Dr. Robert Swift, a professor of psychiatry at Brown University in Providence, R.I., says hangovers vary from person to person. Some people experience hangover symptoms after just one to three drinks, while some heavy drinkers aren't bothered at all.

In addition, says Swift, well-designed experiments are still needed to tease apart just what could be impairing a person's driving.

"Is it the lack of sleep, is it the alcohol or is it the fact they stayed up late the night before?" says Swift. "I'm not sure how you would test them."

Pennsylvania State University researchers once tested the effects of a hangover on a group of male managers.

The men drank enough alcohol to reach a blood alcohol level of 0.10 the night before a day-long test of complex decision-making skills. (In Canada, the legal blood alcohol limit is 0.08). The hangovers didn't impair their work performance -- even when they reported "considerable hangover discomfort."

But, an article published four years ago in the Annals of Internal Medicine warned that people with hangovers "may pose substantial risks to themselves and others despite having normal blood alcohol levels."

ABILITY DIMINISHED:

Swedish researchers who tested hungover drivers on a special road course found volunteers performed an average of 20-per-cent worse compared to when they drove the course without drinking the previous night. Their driving ability was diminished for at least three hours after their blood alcohol level reached zero. What's more, the paid subjects were motivated to do well: They were docked money for every pylon they knocked over.

© The Windsor Star 2004


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