Testing my limits

It was the most devastating phone call I’ve ever received, and certainly not something a 16-year-old kid is prepared to face. Yet on that long-ago Saturday morning, all across the county where I grew up and went to school, hundreds of kids my age were receiving similar calls. Some of us used it as a wake-up call; I guess we were the lucky ones….

I found out later that the two mutual friends who called me, had first argued over the privilege of not being the one to say the actual words, not having to tell me what had happened to my best friend, Mike. They said he’d gone out joyriding with Damon the night before, that they’d been drinking for most of the night. About a mile from Mike’s house, Damon had lost control of the car and smashed into a retaining wall while doing 70. He managed to get out of the car before the police arrived, his arm a little sore.

And Mike? Jovial fat kid, class clown, friend to all, best friend to me? Mike hadn’t felt a thing, which was merciful. Mike had died instantly from the impact.

His mother had no family left, having been divorced before the accident. When I went to see her in that big, empty house, I promised her (and myself) that I would never drink and drive. She reminded me of that a year and a half later, as I headed off to college with a scholarship named in Mike’s honor.

Just don't.

Just don’t.

Two summers later, I met her for lunch. She seemed happy to see me, and was relieved to hear that I’d kept my promise so far. I asked if she’d kept up with Damon, and her voice became bitter as she told me no, but his mother had brought her cookies at Christmas for the last several years – and that if it happened again, she might just have to say a thing or two about cookies, sons, and uneven trades.

Whether by fate, choice, or the inexorable march of time, that was the last time I saw Mike’s mom. I graduated, got a job, and moved away permanently – but I’ve never forgotten my promise. It hasn’t been easy to keep.

The secret of my success

I’m not here to preach temperance; I have no problem with alcohol itself. I’ve told many a secret to a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, that I haven’t even told my wife – and I don’t judge anyone else who chooses to imbibe. Where I have a problem is with people who drive afterward. One thing I’ve observed is, people either don’t understand – or refuse to acknowledge – the sliding scale that begins the moment alcohol touches our lips.

The paradox is, once alcohol enters your system, your judgment is questionable. It might be impaired – and if you have impaired judgment, then you can’t adequately judge whether you’re impaired. Given that, you also won’t be able to judge whether you’re fit to drive – if your judgment is impaired, how can you really tell? That’s the conundrum I discussed with three police officers several weeks ago, as I sat behind the wheel and they sat behind me, watching me drive drunk.

The road worrier.

The road worrier.

By then, I had blown a 0.10, and I was no longer nervous having them look over my shoulder as I tried to negotiate the turns and stops on the laptop display in front of me. They watched me miss the obvious cues, and Senior Officer Pete Manukas shook his head and said, “We’d call you slow.”

Along with Senior Officer Chris Bradford, Manukas is a Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) with the Raleigh Police Department’s Special Operations Division – specifically, the Crash Reconstruction Unit – and since 2006 has been involved in administering more than 300 standard field sobriety tests (SFSTs), both in enforcement and in training scenarios similar to what they set up for me.

Teaching the detectives

The typical training scenario is a three-day class, where police officers learn to recognize the signs of alcohol and drug impairment. Their trainers do this with the aid of up to eight citizens, who essentially volunteer to get drunk under police supervision, then submit to a range of SFSTs. The volunteers drink in a safe, controlled environment, and must agree to ride home afterward with a designated, sober driver. Lt. Tim Tomczak, also of the Special Operations Division, was kind enough to schedule a special session for me one evening, separate from one of their classes. Manukas and Bradford were on-hand to administer the tests (and provide commentary).

My BP had never been higher.My session started with some measurements – pulse, blood pressure, pupil dilation, and blood alcohol content (BAC) – to ensure I wasn’t under the influence of drugs or alcohol before the test began. (I wasn’t.)

They also let me take their Vericom Response Tester for a spin; it’s a driving simulator composed of a steering wheel and brake/accelerator pedals that work in conjunction with computer software to measure a driver’s response time to certain stimuli.

Almost a videogame!

Almost a videogame!

The computer’s display shows a convincing view through a windshield as the “car” traverses a series of roadways and encounters numerous situations requiring fast reactions on the brake pedal and/or the steering wheel. It took me a while to get the hang of it even before I started drinking, but I managed to give them a baseline measurement for my reaction time.

The truth about breath tests

They determined my BAC with the EC/IR II breath testing instrument, more commonly known as a breathalyzer. That was the first of four times that I blew into it that night, and I learned a few things about it in the process. First, it’s failsafe – so if someone is thinking of claiming a false positive, they shouldn’t waste their time. “The EC/IR II checks its accuracy with an internal gas canister,” Tomczak explained. “And if it’s not able to get an accurate reading from the gas, it disables itself and does not allow the officer to run a breath test.”

Secondly, if someone insists on going down the “false positive” road in hopes that a different test would exonerate them, they should hope again – even though the EC/IR II reading will probably differ from the results of a different test, it will do so on the low side. In other words, the breathalyzer is your best bet. For the most accurate reading, air should be in a sealed container, which it isn’t once it leaves the lungs. “Based on a basic law of chemistry, your actual blood alcohol content can be higher than the breath reading,” said Tomczak. “Whatever you blow on the EC/IR II, it can’t possibly be higher than the actual blood figure. Drawing blood would give equal to or higher results than breath every time.”

Clever individuals might reason that this is okay, as they know an officer won’t draw blood at a traffic stop – if the breath reading or other factors warrant it, the officer places the suspect under arrest and takes them “downtown” to draw blood for the corroborating evidence. This takes time, which allows BAC levels to drop – but that won’t help. A state statute has set an elimination rate – 0.0165 percent per hour – that can be used to calculate previous BAC through retrograde analysis.

You don't want to see this in your driver's side window.Crunching the numbers

Refusing to submit to a breath test won’t help, either – it only guarantees a trip to the lab. “Department policy is, ‘If they refuse, you shall draw blood,’” said Manukas. “The law states that we don’t even need a search warrant, but our policy is that we will apply for one.” Applying for the warrant merely delays the process by 10 minutes, he added.

A suspect also shouldn’t get too excited if their test shows their BAC to be less than 0.08 percent – what Manukas calls, “the illegal limit.” This means it’s illegal for someone to operate a motor vehicle if they have a BAC of 0.08 percent – but it doesn’t mean they’re off the hook if their BAC is lower than that amount. One way is with illegal drugs; those cases are based on impairment rather than a quantitative analysis. But it’s also possible to be impaired without having alcohol or illegal drugs in your system – one way is with the use of certain anti-depressants, whose side effects mimic the effects of alcohol. “One of the most dangerous times is when you first start taking a new medication, and you don’t know how it’s going to affect you,” cautioned Tomczak.

Even if alcohol is the only thing in a suspect’s system, a 0.08 isn’t necessary – a person can be convicted of Driving While Impaired (DWI) at any alcohol level, provided they have appreciably impaired faculties. “Appreciable impairment is determined by the officer’s opinion and tests, based on SFST training,” said Bradford.

That’s where I came in. The reason I volunteered for this session was to determine just how easy it is to get a DWI. As it turns out, it’s very easy…

Consumption assumptions

Once they had my baseline numbers, we were ready to begin the session in earnest. We started with my favorite part – having a police officer serve me drinks. They had told me to bring my choice of 80-proof alcohol plus any mixers I desired.

When would I ever get this chance again?I decided against going the full route with a blender and fruit, so I brought a pint of Jack Daniel’s and some ginger ale. They measured out five ounces of Jack and instructed me to finish it within 45 minutes, whether sipped or slammed, straight, on the rocks or mixed. I poured it over ice in a big Solo cup, added some ginger ale, and set to work on my research.

For the record, five ounces of 80-proof liquor has the same alcohol content as 40 ounces of regular beer – about three bottles and change – or 17 ounces of table wine (a little more than three standard servings). Depending on what type of cocktail you prefer and how heavy-handed your bartender is, it’s possible to get five ounces of liquor in two mixed drinks. If you think 45 minutes is not a reasonable amount of time to finish that much – that it would skew the results – you should know that’s not necessarily the case.

Drinking alcohol quickly won’t always get it into your system quickly. Your body absorbs most of its alcohol via the small intestine, and what you consume with your mouth doesn’t make a beeline for that region. There’s a layover in the stomach, where food and beverages wait for a while in order to be properly digested. Alcohol in the stomach has to wait for the pyloric valve to open before it can enter the small intestine, and sometimes that valve isn’t willing to let the stomach’s visitors go. In fact, there are certain types of food that will “fool” the valve into staying closed, even if you’ve eaten only a small amount. One of those is peanuts – grab a handful of those while you’re waiting for the bartender, and chances are good you won’t feel the effects of your first drink until you’ve ordered a few more.

It’s a misconception that food “absorbs” alcohol, and that eating a lot before drinking will prevent a person from becoming drunk. In reality, it merely delays the absorption of the alcohol into the body. Nothing short of removing the alcohol the way it went in, can prevent it from eventually entering your bloodstream. What this means is, whether you drink five ounces in five minutes or two hours, you’re still going to absorb every drop. You might be thinking that time helps, because time allows the body to get rid of the alcohol, but remember – if the alcohol is still sitting in your stomach, it has to enter your bloodstream before you can get rid of it.

If the pyloric valve stays open and you’re able to absorb the alcohol gradually, then drinking over a longer time can make a difference, as your body eliminates it naturally. But the “one hour per drink” rule of thumb is another myth – even the healthiest liver can’t break down alcohol at that rate. You’ll reach the point of diminishing returns, and if you have five drinks over five hours, you shouldn’t get behind the wheel. In fact, said Tomczak, “It’s hard to find evidence to say one drink will significantly affect your judgment and motor skills; where the numbers get squishy is at two to four drinks.”

He looked jovial in this one moment, but there was no doubting how seriously he takes his job.

He looked jovial in this one moment, but there was no doubting how seriously he takes his job.

Testing, 1-2-3…

I finished my double Jack and Ginger in the prescribed amount of time, and submitted myself for the first round of testing. Having never done such a thing before, I was apprehensive. Even with their blessing, and in a controlled environment, it goes against the natural order to sit there, intentionally getting drunk in front of a tribunal of cops. They made it a little easier by answering questions and making small talk during the 45 minutes between tests, but when it came time to look for my appreciable impairment, they were all business. Manukas measured my BAC and administered two of the physical tests, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that you don’t want to end up on the wrong side of his EC/IR II.

Outlining each procedure that was about to take place, he had his speeches memorized, and I’d bet they never vary by as much as one word each time he gives them in the field. In a flat, all-business tone, he told me exactly what he was about to do and what he expected me to do, and I could tell his steely gaze was taking in every subtle reaction on my face. At the end of each speech, he would ask, “Do you understand everything I just said?” and I knew that was one question a person should consider very carefully before answering, because once they answered in the affirmative, there’d be no going back. In fact, the reply would no doubt be recorded for evidence. Tomczak later explained, “Everything in court depends on the officer. It’s essential to have good notes and video… The Raleigh Police Department prides itself on integrity, and we know we’ve done everything we could, above-board. It’s frustrating sometimes to see someone beat our case, but our attitude is, the officer needs to be well-prepared and have an airtight case. Then it’s up to the courts.”

I answered “Yes, I understand” after hearing how the breath test would work, and proceeded to blow a 0.04 – lower than I expected, considering how tipsy I was already feeling. When I mentioned my surprise and told Manukas I could already tell my judgment was too impaired to drive, he just smiled and told me to wait until I hit 0.08 and see if I felt differently.

He didn't miss anything.

He didn’t miss anything.

Bradford administered the next test, and in this case, he didn’t take in every facial reaction, instead watching only my eyes. This was the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) Test, one of the three main SFSTs. HGN refers to an involuntary eye jerk that occurs when someone tries to look to the side. Bradford instructed me to keep my head still and follow his finger, which he moved right and left at varying degrees of speed and direction change. His eyes stayed on mine the entire time, and even though I never felt or otherwise detected it, he told me my eyes were jerking with the effort. He also had to remind me several times to not move my head, even though I never felt that I was. During this test, an officer watches for multiple clues – smoothness of motion, distinct jerking at maximum deviation, and angle of onset of jerking – and according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the presence of four or more of those clues between both eyes is an indicator that a suspect likely has reached 0.08 percent BAC. And there’s nothing a suspect can do to prevent their eyes from giving those clues; memorize the backward alphabet and practice touching your nose all you want, but you cannot fake your way out of this one.

They gathered around to watch this one.

They gathered around to watch this one.

Another round

Saving the best tests for last, the officers measured out another five ounces of Jack and started the clock again. After 45 minutes, I excused myself to go to the men’s room, and as I came out and headed back toward the testing station, all three officers watched me walk. One of them quipped that he could tell just from that that I was “already there.” And he was right – I submitted to two breath tests with Manukas, blowing a 0.09 and a 0.10, respectively. By then, my outlook had changed – I felt I was on top of the world, nothing was wrong with my judgment, and I could drive anywhere with no problems. The tests said different.

It was time for the next two from the main SFST battery of three – the Walk-and-Turn and the One-Leg Stand. Manukas placed a length of duct tape on the floor and gave me my orders for the former, asking me before I started if I had understood everything. I shuddered at the implications, answered in the affirmative, and began when I was ready – but no amount of preparation or inner pep talks can help someone successfully complete this test if they are at 0.08 BAC.

No, I wasn't doing ballet; I was trying like hell to keep myself vertical.

No, I wasn’t doing ballet; I was trying like hell to keep myself vertical.

I was to take nine steps, heel-to-toe, along the line of duct tape – on the tenth step, I was to turn on one foot and return to my starting point, again walking heel-to-toe. The NHTSA says there are eight indicators of impairment, and if an individual exhibits even two, there’s a 79-percent chance s/he is at 0.08 or above. I believe I gave six. Even with my best concentration, I couldn’t stay on the line or keep my balance. I almost fell multiple times. Had it been a real field test, they should have had cuffs on me before I could make it back to my starting point.

Next, I attempted the One-Leg Stand, raising one foot about six inches off the ground with a straight leg in front of me, and trying to hold that position for as long as I could while Manukas counted out loud by thousands. It’s disconcerting to start a test with no set stopping point, attempting to judge for myself whether I’d gone long enough. At least, that’s what I told myself – that when I finally put my foot down, it was because I thought I’d been standing there long enough, and chose to put it down. Hardly. I felt like I was about to fall over, and by then my foot felt like it must have weighed 75 pounds. But I played it off like I was just impatient, silently congratulating myself for lasting to the count of 18. Then he told me most sober people can leave it up there for well over a count of 30.

According to the NHTSA, 83 percent of subjects who fail at two of the four indicators in the One-Leg Stand Test, are past the illegal limit. When both tests are combined with the HGN Test, officers are accurate 91-94 percent of the time. And, like the HGN Test, you cannot hide the symptoms. These two physical tests are easy for a sober person, but an impaired person will give clues every time – even if they try to cheat the system by practicing. The tests also indicate how well a subject can divide their attention, another indicator – an impaired person will have trouble completing a task that requires them to divide their attention between simple mental and physical parts of that task. And that’s an important thing to test, as divided attention is a necessity for safe driving. Said Manukas, “If you can’t divide your attention while you’re sitting there and I’m talking to you, you’re not gonna be able to divide your attention when you’re doing 60mph.”

And I couldn’t. Remember the driving simulator? They had me try it after my SFSTs, and I failed eight consecutive times. On my worst attempt, I practically tripled my baseline reaction time/distance of 0.72 seconds and 64.33 feet. A lot can happen in those additional 124 feet – just ask my old friend Mike.

How to judge your impaired judgment

Worth remembering!That’s the crux of the matter – the probable outcome when a driver’s reaction time and distance increase due to impaired judgment. At 0.08 BAC, a person’s vision is affected and their judgment is no longer reliable, regardless of whether they believe they can drive a car. Bradford told of a traffic stop where he became suspicious that the driver had been drinking. Her driving had appeared to be fine as she approached – no swerves, etc. – but she was clearly impaired and, as such, was a hazard. He still doesn’t know exactly what her BAC was, because the breathalyzer maxed out at 0.40 – by all rights she should have been comatose or dead, but she was driving a car and unable to comprehend why that was a problem. Manukas reminded me, “Your driving doesn’t have to be bad for you to be convicted; you just have to show appreciable impairment. The offense is ‘Driving While Impaired’, not ‘Driving Was Impaired.’”

In other words, when you’re impaired you might think you’re doing fine, but you’re not. Even if you’re keeping it between the lines, it’s only a matter of time until something happens that requires a reaction many times faster than what a drunk person is capable of. “A lot of people who know it’s bad to drink and drive, fail to realize that when they’re drinking,” said Tomczak.

Why? Because their judgment is impaired, and as he said, most fatalities are the result of judgment issues. And according to the NHTSA, one happens every 52 minutes. That bears repeating – somewhere in the U.S., someone dies at the hands of a drunk driver every 52 minutes. That’s why Tomczak and his colleagues are proud of what they do, and take it seriously. “Unfortunately, a lot of the job of law enforcement is reactive – someone’s already hurt somebody else, so we go get them,” he said. “But a DWI checkpoint is proactive – we get them off the street before they can hurt somebody else.”

But they can’t get all of them off the street. We have to take the onus on ourselves when we drink. The only way to end the fatalities is to stop driving after drinking. Don’t think. Don’t attempt to judge. Just know – if you’ve been drinking, you should not drive. The consequences are too dire. Accept the fact that your judgment is suspect after drinking – commit it to memory, make a mantra of it, and be sure to remind yourself multiple times as you drink, so you won’t convince yourself that you’re fine to drive. As Manukas said, “If you have to ask yourself if you’re okay to drive, then don’t.”

But if you do, I just hope you don’t end up sending cookies to your victim’s loved ones once a year.

[Originally published in the November/December issue of Midtown; photos by Sean Junqueira.]

About Dan Bain

Dan is an award-winning humorist, features writer, emcee and entertainer from Raleigh, NC. His collection of humor essays, A Nay for Effort, has earned him fans from one end of his couch to the other. Why not join them and buy one? (You won't have to sit on his couch.) Dan will donate 10 percent of the book's proceeds to education. You can check it out at www.danbain.net; thanks!
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6 Responses to Testing my limits

  1. Should ABSOLUTELY be required reading in every high school and college….Well done!

  2. Pat Matheson says:

    Sobering information, Dan. I agree. This should be a mandatory read for every person prior to applying for a drivers license.

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