Journalists Are Known to Drink—Here’s the Story That Made Me Stop

By Jack Limpert

The  headline on today’s Washington Post Weekend section is “Off the Sauce, On the Town,” with nightlife writer Fritz Hahn telling readers how to have non-alcoholic fun. Hahn says every January he stops drinking: “The time off gives my liver a chance to regenerate. Consuming fewer drinks means consuming fewer calories, so I always lose weight. I’ve found I sleep better. My blood pressure goes down as well.”

I quit drinking after putting together a story, “Step Out of the Car, Please,” for The Washingtonian. The story’s opening photo was a tough-looking cop shining his flashlight into the eyes of the reader, presumed to be driving under the influence. The piece was inspired by a couple of high-profile cases of drunk driving—one of the those arrested that year of 2002 was PBS commentator Bill Moyers, whose education included a Master of Divinity degree and who always seemed to be delivering a sermon.

The idea of the Washingtonian story was to help the reader understand what it took to get arrested for driving under the influence. From the story:
We asked seven Washingtonian staffers to take part in an experiment to see what it takes to get to a blood-alcohol level (BAC) of .08, the DC legal limit for driving. Our four female participants—ranging in age from 26 to 59 and in weight from 105 to 175 pounds—drank five-ounce glasses of white wine. The three men ranged in age from 25 to 68 and weighed between 160 and 170 pounds. One had white wine; two drank Budweiser. Everybody ate lunch at least two hours before the test. Nobody drove home.

DC police lieutenant Patrick Burke and investigator John Ashley did sobriety checks and Alco-Sensor tests 15 minutes after each person finished a drink.

Here’s what we found:

Standing in front of a cop is scarier than you think. During the sobriety tests, Burke and Ashley fixed each staffer with an intimidating stare. One man said, “It makes me feel guilty and I’ve only had one beer.” A woman who made two mistakes on the first walk-and-turn said, “I’m shaking because I’m worried I’m going to do something wrong.”

The lighter you are, the faster you get drunk. One of our 105-pound women hit .08 after three glasses, the other after four. The 150-pound and 175-pound women blew just .06 and .05 after four glasses. Physiology explains this: The heavier you are, the more body water you have to dilute the alcohol.

Age matters. As we age, we lose some of the body water that helps dilute alcohol. Vision, hearing, and reaction time also become more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol. Burke and Ashley “arrested” our oldest participant, a 68-year-old man, after one beer. His BAC was .01, but he wobbled on his walk-and-turn and put a hand on the wall to steady himself. After three beers—at .04—he put his foot down three times during the one-leg stand. After four beers, he nearly fell over.
Yeah, the 68-year-old guy was me, a Wisconsin native who had started drinking beer, sometimes with a shot of brandy on the side, when he was 15, and who had worked his way through college as a bartender, seeing plenty drunks behaving badly. I won’t bore you with all the drinking stories, but there are lot of them.

After I was driven home that night, I told my wife, Jean, that I’d just had my last drink. She still often has a glass of wine with dinner and we offer all kinds of drinks to guests, but almost falling down in front of DC police officer Patrick Burke was it for me.

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