Drinking and driving can have many shades of gray, but at the end of the day, getting behind the wheel impaired just isn’t worth it.
HAMBURG — It’s summertime and the livin’ is easy. Many of us are kicking off our shoes, dragging out those deck chairs and putting up our feet with a cold one while burgers and dogs sizzle on the grill. Tis the season for barbecues, post-prom parties and graduation get-togethers or for catching an outdoor concert at any of our many local venues. It’s also the season for motorcycle and convertible rides, for rolling down the windows and as my dad used to say, “blowing the stink out” of our winter-logged lives.
If we’re not careful, that summer revelry can quickly turn tragic, if a driver who has even had one too many drinks gets behind the wheel and causes a crash.
So how much alcohol is too much, when driving is involved?
In New York state, a driver can be charged with driving under the influence for having a blood alcohol content of .08 percent for drivers 21 years old and older, .04 percent for drivers operating a commercial motor vehicle and .02 percent for drivers younger than 21, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Penalties vary, but at minimum, will result in license suspension, fines, potential jail time and possible enrollment in the New York Drinking Driver Program.
If the driver is not of legal drinking age in the first place, those penalties stiffen. For underage drivers, the first offense will result in a six-month license suspension, $125 civil penalty, $100 service fee for the license suspension and possible installation of an ignition interlock device, which carries its own associated fees.
In addition, Leandra’s Law, instituted last year, means stricter penalties for drivers who are convicted with a DWI with a child in the car, a law that is currently under review for even tighter consequences.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, fatalities caused by inebriated driving rose to 29 percent of all traffic deaths in 2012, a 4.9 percent increase from last year. Nationwide, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that about 1,400 accidents involved a driver who had a prior DWI conviction. In addition, drivers who had been drinking are nearly 1.4 times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident.
In Erie County, about 2,600 people are arrested for misdemeanor DWI, each year. Of that, 96 percent are convicted.
But here’s the rub: According to District Attorney Frank Sedita, many of those charges get reduced from DWI to lesser punishments, especially for first-time offenders. Of that 2,600, only 17 percent are convicted of the original charge. In 2012, 83 percent of drivers in Erie County charged with misdemeanor DWI had their charge reduced to a charge called “driving while impaired,” which is similar to a traffic ticket, carrying fines and temporary suspension, or dismissed altogether.
Many judges are reluctant to charge first-time offenders with a DWI, especially because of the steep punishments associated with the crime, but anti-drunk driving advocates say that leniency does not discourage drivers from getting behind the wheel after a couple of cold ones, even if they are technically too impaired to drive.
Those who have spent an afternoon lounging by the pool with a few margaritas or hearing their favorite bands playing with a couple of beers in hand are not properly equipped to weigh the consequences of driving home, according to the University of Amsterdam. While no one would hand the keys to a falling-down drunk, even one stiff drink or two glasses of wine can cause the drinker to not recognize errors, according to the University of Amsterdam. That’s a BAC of .04 percent, far below the legal limit for adults.
Richard Ridderinkhof and his associates studied what they call the brain’s “oops” response, which can be monitored electronically in an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex.
Ridderinkhof tested 14 men who were social drinkers. They were given either an alcohol-free drinks, enough alcohol to raise their blood alcohol levels to .04, or enough to get their BAC’s to .10 percent. The men took a computer test, which involved reacting to an arrow on the screen, and their brain activity was recorded. They were given the opportunity to practice taking the test before they were given alcohol.
The volunteers who did not drink any alcohol experienced an error rate of about 4.8 percent, but after the first drink the error rate increased to 19.8 percent. The time each subject took to decide the correct answer also increased when they drank alcohol. All of the subjects who drank alcohol made mistakes, but the number of mistakes at .10 level were not significantly different from those at a .04 level. “We were really surprised to find this at a .04 level,” Ridderinkhof said.
So, even if a person doesn’t feel impaired, her mistake-monitoring and fine motor skills may tell another story. That said, it can be difficult for the average person to determine what constitutes a .04 BAC, or even a .08 level.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, one drink will result in a .02 BAC if consumed over one hour. It will take the average person three hours to return to a BAC of .00, after just one drink. Two drinks over one hour, for most people, will raise a person’s BAC to .04. At this level, according to the CDC, fine motor skills will be impaired. In general, three or more drinks will cause a person to be impaired, although it should be noted that the effects will vary depending on an individual’s weight and height, how much food has been consumed, whether he or she is taking any medications that might interact with alcohol and a number of other factors.
But drinkers beware: “one” drink is not necessarily the amount that fills the cup, depending on the type of alcohol and, of course, the size of that cup.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that 12 ounces of regular beer, that weighs in at about 5 percent alcohol by volume; 5 ounces of wine at 12 percent ABV or 1.5 ounces of spirits, which is about 40 percent ABV is considered one standard drink. That means an artisanal beer that is 7 or 8 ABV, a cocktail with several shots of alcohol or an extra-large pour of wine is actually more than one drink, no matter how many times you refill the cup.
I like a glass of wine after work as much as the next person, but when it comes to drinking and driving, it can be difficult to gauge where the line is.
One drink at a bar with smaller glasses and lighter pours is not the same as one drink at a bar with 10-ounce wine glasses, which is not the same as what you may crack open at home. And even if the first time you’re pulled over for a DWI means you may get a lighter conviction, even the first drunk driving incident can result in a fatal accident. Is it worth that risk?
So, whether we’re relaxing in our backyards or heading to a party, or if your teens and college graduates are letting their hair down to celebrate those big life transitions, let’s all pledge to be careful about the effects of alcohol, at any level. A few drinks can be fun, in moderation, but watch out for the effects on your decision-making. Decide who is going to drive before taking that first sip, and stick to it.
And remember: Even if your own kids and their friends are having a few at your house and you’ve confiscated the keys, you are still liable for anything that happens on your property, whether you technically condoned their activities or not. When it comes to alcohol, individual judges may be lenient, but the laws themselves are not. Don’t count on being the exception; play by the rules.