Alcohol and cellphones are two of the greatest traffic hazards in the modern era, and new research suggests their power to cause accidents is even stronger when combined.

A team of researchers at the University of Kentucky recently released a study examining the link between distracted driving and alcohol impairment. Their findings indicate that the presence of one risk factor tends to substantially increase the effects of the other - even below the threshold for drunk driving. Using a driving simulator, the researchers tested the effects of a single drink on driving abilities, as well as the effects of simple distractions designed to resemble the experience of using a mobile phone or onboard navigation system.

Each factor, when tested separately, had a negative impact on participants' ability to drive safely. When tested together, however, the effects were amplified. Even at legal alcohol consumption levels, the presence of distractions in the vehicle doubled the effects of alcohol impairment among the study participants. Given the abundant distractions facing many drivers today, and the common practice of driving after consuming small amounts of alcohol, the findings suggest that many people may be dangerously impaired without realizing it.

A push for lower alcohol limits

In Illinois, like other states nationwide, drivers whose blood alcohol content (BAC) levels measure 0.08 or higher are legally presumed to be drunk and may not drive. However, even drivers who have less to drink and remain below that threshold may still experience impairment of their driving skills - with or without distractions - thereby increasing the risk of accidents.

Partly in response to recent research showing that driving skills can be substantially impaired at legal BAC levels, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended in 2013 that the drunk driving limit be lowered from 0.08 to 0.05. According to agency estimates, such a change would prevent about 500 to 800 alcohol-related traffic fatalities every year nationwide.

So far, none of the states have changed their drunk driving laws to incorporate the recommendation, and not everyone agrees that doing so would be worthwhile. Some say drunk driving prevention efforts would be more effective if focused on highly impaired drivers, since they are responsible for a higher proportion of serious drunk driving accidents.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 70 percent of all drunk driving fatalities involve at least one driver whose BAC level was 0.15 or above. However, as more research is done on the ways in which low-level alcohol impairment combines with other common risk factors, such as distracted driving, it is possible that legislation will eventually be passed to address the issue.

Drivers who cause accidents can be liable, even without charges

Meanwhile, it is important to understand that drivers who cause accidents due to any form of negligence - such as distracted driving, alcohol or drug impairment, drowsy driving or everyday recklessness - can be held liable under civil law for the damage they cause, even if they are not charged with a crime. This means that drivers who cause accidents in Illinois can often be required to pay for any injuries and related costs arising from the crash, such as medical bills and lost wages. If you or a member of your family has been hurt in a traffic accident in Illinois, be sure to talk things over with a knowledgeable personal injury lawyer to learn about your legal rights and how to protect them.

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