Do drinking and riding mix? Effects of legal doses of alcohol on balance ability in experienced motorcyclists


The appropriateness of applying drink driving legislation to motorcycle riding has been questioned as there may be fundamental differences in the effects of alcohol on these two activities. For example, while the distribution of blood alcohol content (BAC) levels among fatally injured male drivers compared to riders is similar, a greater proportion of motorcycle fatalities involve levels in the lower (0 to .10% BAC) range. Several psychomotor and higher-order cognitive skills underpinning riding performance appear to be significantly influenced by low levels of alcohol. For example, at low levels (.02 to .046% BAC), riders show significant increases in reaction time to hazardous stimuli, inattention to the riding task, performance errors such as leaving the roadway and a reduced ability to complete a timed course. It has been suggested that alcohol may redirect riders’ focus from higher-order cognitive skills to more physical skills such as maintaining balance. As part of a research program to investigate the potential benefits of introducing a zero, or reduced, BAC for all riders in Queensland regardless of their licence status, the effects of low doses of alcohol on balance ability were investigated in a laboratory setting. The static balance of ten experienced riders was measured while they performed either no secondary task, a visual search task, or a cognitive (arithmetic) task following the administration of alcohol (0; 0.02, and 0.05% BAC). Subjective ratings of intoxication and balance impairment increased in a dose-dependent manner; however, objective measures of static balance were negatively affected only at the .05% BAC dose. Performance on a concurrent secondary visual search task, but not a purely cognitive (arithmetic) task, improved postural stability across all BAC levels. Finally, the .05% BAC dose was associated with impaired performance on the cognitive (arithmetic) task, but not the visual search task, when participants were balancing, but neither task was impaired by alcohol when participants were standing on the floor. Implications for road safety and future ‘drink riding’ policy considerations are discussed.

Proceedings of 2011 22nd Australasian Road Safety Research, Policing and Education Conference (ARSRPE 2011), Perth, Australia, 6-9 November 2011