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How to spot a drunk

Reid Williams/Special to the Daily
Stephanie Row, a dispatcher for the Summit County Communications Center, performs roadside sobriety tests in a meeting room at the ice rink in Breckenridge Thursday. Breckenridge Police Officer Josh Lavardiere, left, and other officers participated in the class to hone skills used to identify drunken drivers.
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BRECKENRIDGE – Good thing it was the cops who gave me the booze. I failed the roadside sobriety tests, according to three officers.

Another three who had only done the “follow the pen with your eyes” test also said they would have arrested me. It’s a good thing, too, that I wasn’t driving.

I had volunteered for some tough duty. Essentially, I got paid to drink screwdrivers and play board games, then go through the same field tests motorists are put through when police suspect they’ve been driving under the influence.

While the whole situation sounds humorous, I took away a serious lesson, but I’ll get to that in a second. First, you probably want to hear more about drinking with the cops.

I was one of about 10 volunteers helping Silverthorne Officer Britt Dinsmore and Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Edstrom conduct a class for police officers in Summit County.

Officers learned the proper way to conduct roadside sobriety tests and what clues to look for in determining if someone’s intoxicated. They also learned more academic esoterica such as how alcohol affects human biochemistry and motor functions, and the case law and medical studies that validate what we often euphemistically call at the newspaper, the “How Drunk Are You Really?” tests.

The tests, and drawing a legally justifiable conclusion from them, are not the easiest thing to do, Edstrom explained to the officers over the three-day course.

People have medical conditions that might make them appear drunk when they are not. Some people have no balance. Some people’s eyes have a natural nystagmus, or jerking motion, that could make it look like they’ve been drinking when they haven’t been.

“If you “think’ you see it, it’s probably not there,” Edstrom repeatedly cautioned the officers.

To put the officers to the test, the teachers needed live volunteers – two days’ worth.

Drinking by the numbers

So on a recent Wednesday, Dinsmore picked me up from the office, along with some operators from the county dispatch center, and set to mixing us drinks donated by Porky’s Liquors in Silverthorne.

Vodka was the liquor of choice because of its lack of odor. I mixed mine with orange juice; the ladies had tomato and cranberry juice.

My first surprise came after two drinks in about 90 minutes. Although I felt “with it” and might have gotten behind the wheel of a car in another circumstance, I blew a .063 breath-alcohol content.

For those who don’t know the law, a .05 gets you a driving while ability impaired (DWAI) charge, a .1 gets you a driving under the influence (DUI).

Looking at the digital readout of the portable breath test (PBT) machine will come to mind immediately the next time anyone pleads with me to have “just a drink.”

The next surprise came another 90 minutes later, after I’d had a third cocktail. Right before the officers – who’d been in the classroom next door – came in, I blew a .036. I was legal, as far as the numbers go.

Somehow, I had metabolized enough alcohol in three hours to counteract the drinks. This gave me some confidence going into the tests.

My fellow volunteers, however, were going to have to put on a show. Interestingly enough, although we’d had the same number of drinks, two of the women in the test were over .1.

“It’s amazing,” said Ginger Gregory, who blew a .102. “We all had the same amount, and you’re safe and she’s going to jail. Weight, food and metabolism really do make a difference. There’s no telling where you’re at.”

The officers took turns testing us. The main focus of the class is the horizontal gaze nystagmus, or HGN, test.

There are two kinds of muscles in the human eye – a fast-twitch kind that makes eyes snap to objects in view, and a smooth- pursuit kind that allows you to track objects.

Alcohol ruins the function of smooth-pursuit eye muscles, so when you follow that pen, your eyes will jerk if you’ve been drinking.

The other tests were simple balance and coordination challenges such as reciting the alphabet, walking a straight line heel-to-toe, standing on one leg and counting and touching the nose with eyes closed.

After the officers had tested us, they sat down in front of a board and compared notes on each of us. In the end, they had to decide how intoxicated we were and whether they’d arrest us. I was the only one of the five under the limit. By an overwhelming margin, the majority of officers would have arrested us all.

“This is the thing I fear the most,” said Josh Lavardiere, a Breckenridge officer who just completed the police academy this summer. “A DUI arrest means an awful lot of paperwork, and it’s a serious thing that affects people’s lives. We had maybe eight hours of this in the academy. Now I realize I need a lot of practice, need to observe more officers do this.”

DUI plague

Summit County continues to see hundreds of – nearly a thousand – DUIs each year. Despite new transportation alternatives, such as nighttime buses and taxis, despite advertising campaigns and continued news coverage of checkpoints and accidents, the numbers haven’t dropped in the past five years – except when local departments aren’t receiving federal enforcement grants.

According to Bev Gmerek, a coordinator with the Summit Prevention Alliance, who also volunteered in the class, nationwide DUI numbers and accidents are actually up.

Gmerek said, unfortunately, there is a “hardcore” group of drinkers that just doesn’t change. It is these drivers that are estimated to cause 50 percent of alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

Gmerek hopes to be able to do experiments like this with the general public. That might make a difference, she said.

“We really need to educate people about BAC levels,” Gmerek said. “The only way to do that is to get out there to a happy hour and have them blow.”

I’m already sold on the idea. I kept the disposable plastic tube from the PBT test. I’ll keep it in my car just as a reminder.


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