David Snyder didn't set out to study whether resisting the urge to urinate when you're behind the wheel would feel a lot like driving drunk.
The neuroresearcher and his colleagues simply wanted to examine how pain affects reaction and recall in humans. But it so happens that one safe and easy way to induce pain is to withhold the urge to urinate. And intoxication serves as a good comparative tool for cognitive dysfunction.
Which is how the researchers, whose paper is drably titled "The Effect of Acute Increase in Urge to Void on Cognitive Function in Healthy Adults," became famous on the blogosphere for scientifically concluding that if you really, really have to go, then you are about as capable behind the wheel as a drunk.
"It certainly did go viral," laughs Snyder, a professor of neurology at Brown University in Providence, R.I. The research earned his team a 2011 Ig Nobel Prize, awarded for research that makes people laugh, then think.
Indeed, people chuckled. How could they not, with lines like this one from Ernio Hernandez at GuySpeed.com: "If you like to keep up to date with the latest research in peeing, well, urine luck."
Brain teaser: Is this card red or black?
To gauge how well the brain functions on an engorged bladder, Snyder and his team gave healthy volunteers an 8.4-ounce glass of water every 15 minutes, asking them to perform tasks at varying levels of gotta-go.
After 2.3 hours, or nine glasses, the last of the volunteers had cried uncle and hit the head.
"It was at this point where they said, 'I'll do this test one more time, then I'm leaving,' " Snyder says.
This was also the point at which the volunteers had trouble pressing the correct key to signal whether a playing card they had just been shown less than a second before was red or black.
By the time the volunteers really had to urinate, they were about as inaccurate on this seemingly simple test as were volunteers with a 0.05 percent blood alcohol level, the equivalent of about 2.5 drinks consumed in an hour and the legal limit for operating a car in Australia, where some of the researchers were located.
It's not just that the pain itself is distracting, says Snyder; it's that actively contracting those gotta-go muscles is fairly intense work, at least neurologically speaking. Exerting such a high level of concentration appears to physically interfere with nearby areas of the brain that are responsible for reason and problem solving.
"You have to exert voluntary control over muscles that really want to relax," says Snyder.
Do you stay or do you go?
All the Web attention got Snyder to laughing, and to thinking.
And it got other people thinking as well, mostly about the kind of important and vital work they're doing while, apparently, loopy on restraint. Snyder heard from nurses, from teachers, from medical residents and from drivers -- lots of drivers -- all describing how they routinely find themselves many hours away from their last pit stop.
Reporters from the British newspaper The Guardian even questioned whether, in light of the study, Prime Minister David Cameron "was in his right mind" when he vetoed an otherwise-unanimous European Union currency treaty last December.
During the negotiations, Cameron was said to be using his "full-bladder technique," something he picked up from the late Enoch Powell, a conservative politico who said he preferred to deliver speeches on a full bladder so as to increase the tension.
"Here you've got The Guardian asking whether the prime minister was perhaps doing his citizens a disservice," said Snyder. Meanwhile, truckers and long-distance driving enthusiasts were telling him that they kept bottles in their car for relief on the go.
"The distraction of relieving yourself while you're driving 60 mph on the highway is … crazy," he said. "First, you're in that kind of pain, you're in that emergency state and you haven't pulled over yet," and second, "I would imagine that urinating into a bottle while driving on a freeway is easily as distractible as talking on a cellphone."
Safety is your No. 1 priority
No one will send you to jail for driving with a full bladder, but they will write you a ticket for driving erratically if you try to relieve yourself on the go.
"If I had a trucker tell me he was doing that, I would cite him for careless driving," said Sgt. Don Lusk of the Michigan State Police. "I'm not crazy about the semi driver hauling steel behind me who's not paying attention to the road because he's trying to put one object into another object. I would much prefer a trucker pull over to the side of the road, [and] do what he's got to do, than do that."
And while an empirical list of most overused speeding excuses doesn't exist, "I have to go to the bathroom" will make every law enforcement officer's top 10. They simply don't buy it.
Transportation engineers clearly take such human needs into consideration when designing interstates, with rest stops spaced at reasonable intervals. In town, Walmarts and convenience stores dot every corner. Tell a cop you've got to go and he just may offer to escort you to a bathroom and wait outside with a ticket in hand.
Your car insurance company is similarly pitiless: A gotta-go speeding ticket counts the same as any other violation. Usually, it will cost you your good-driver discount first, and then become a liability as the tickets mount.(You may have been driving as though drunk, but a real DUI has far worse consequences.)
How about a car accident? "Yes, this form of distracted driving is covered," says CarInsurance.com consumer analyst Penny Gusner. "Your car insurance policy is there to protect you for negligent acts, even if it means you crashed because your need to urinate overcame your ability to drive safely."
Like any at-fault accident, though, your future rates can be affected, Gusner says.