Drinking and driving, oh my!
AFTER SWALLOWING TWO BEERS, Index-Tribune reporter Emily Charrier-Botts attempted to maneuver a driving course, monitored by Jim Russell Racing Drivers School instructor Jeff Westphal. She failed, made evident by the cones she knocked down and then had to pick up during the test.
To celebrate St. Patrick's Day, I had a few beers and went for a drive.
No, I was not one of the thousands who hit the highways buzzed, blitzed or even falling-down drunk on this holiday; I did it with professional instructors from the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School at my side and more than a dozen California Highway Patrol officers watching nearby. It was part of an annual St. Patrick's Day Sobriety Challenge, held at Infineon Raceway in conjunction with the CHP to spread awareness about the dangers of drinking and driving, even after just two beers.
"It's a fun promotion that we do, but it's also really important in terms of the message we deliver. No question on a day like today, there's a lot of beers that are going to be opened in a lot of pubs and a lot of people out enjoying themselves," said Steve Page, president and general manager of Infineon. "The message that's really important to realize, that we try to convey here, is that there is a legal limit of .08 and after that you're legally not capable of driving. But there is a level of impairment that is well below that level and it's something people need to be aware of and think twice before they get in the car."
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, 37 percent of people on the road on St. Patrick's Day have consumed enough spirits to be legally drunk. There are no statistics on how many drivers have a blood alcohol level between zero and .08 and, as I learned Thursday, even when not legally drunk, every bit of alcohol can impair your driving abilities.
I was one of more than a dozen media professionals trying their hand at completing road tests after two drinks, either beer or wine. First, I took on the three driving courses sober to set a baseline time, which included making quick turns while weaving through a maze of cones; practicing swerving by speeding up as fast as possible only to have the instructor yell "right" or "left" at the last minute, indicating the direction I had to swerve; and maneuvering a vehicle forward and backward in a tight series of right angles through cones laid out in a plus sign.
While the first two were fairly easy, I did hit a cone on the third test, affectionately called the "Clover From Hell" by the driving instructors.
Then, at 11:30 a.m., it was time to drink. I quickly downed a cup of Moylans Orange and Black Congrats Ale with an alcohol volume of 6 percent, followed by a Moylan's Irish Style Red Ale, with an alcohol volume of 6.5 percent - both of which were delicious in case anyone is curious. On an empty stomach at that early hour of the day, I felt the familiar fuzzy feeling of being tipsy pretty quick.
Next, CHP Officer A.M. Paulson put me through a standard field sobriety test of following her finger, counting while standing on one leg and the traditional walking heel-to-toe along a straight line. While in my head I felt confident, I was surprised how my legs betrayed me, wobbling under the influence of those two beers. On the preliminary alcohol screening (PAS) breath test, I blew a .047, well below the legal limit.
Despite that, getting back behind the wheel was intimidating, I felt impaired enough that the idea of speeding through a maze of cones didn't sound like the best idea. Turns out it wasn't, because I failed the test. While I generally completed the tests faster, my accuracy decreased. I took longer to brake and on my nemesis, the "Clover From Hell," I hit three cones. And that was after being declared legally capable of driving.
"... Even at levels at or near .08 you're going to show some impairment out there on the road course. Cones will be falling, the brake and the gas are going to be choppy," Officer Jaret Paulson said.
On my final PAS, taken 37 minutes after the first one, the alcohol had soaked into my blood stream and I blew a .061. While still legal to drive, I was glad to have I-T photographer Robbi Pengelly to get me back to the office safely. It just goes to show, after drinking almost any amount, it is best to stay away from the wheel of a car. That slowed reaction time can mean the difference between life and death.
"Especially on St. Patrick's Day, which just seems to be the day to drink, so we just want to get the word out that you can go out, have fun, just make sure you are responsible and that you have a designated driver or take public transportation where you go," said Mary Ziegenbein, an officer with the Vallejo CHP. "We want people to know if you're going to drink and drive, we're going to be out there and we're going to catch you."