How Much New Year’s Eve Celebration Will Get You Arrested?

Just before New Year’s Eve the Washingtonian once ran a story, “Step Out of the Car, Please.” The idea was to help readers understand how much alcohol could land them in court on a DWI charge or cause them to get into an accident.

The story’s opening photo was a tough-looking cop shining his flashlight into the eyes of the reader. The piece was inspired by a couple of high-profile cases of drunk driving—one of the those arrested that year was PBS commentator Bill Moyers, whose education included a Master of Divinity degree and who always seemed to be delivering a sermon.

We asked seven Washingtonian staffers 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 can be scary. 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.
The 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 of drunks behaving badly.

After I was driven home that night, I told my wife 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. Now it’s club soda with lime.

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