I can not tell you the number of times that someone has come up to me while I was speaking to groups regarding driving under the influence issues and asked the same question. How many drinks can I have and still be able to legally drive?
The answer to that question is not one that has a fixed formula. I have read scores of research papers and volumes of material explaining all the variables that come into play when it comes to establishing an individual’s blood alcohol content or BAC.
Before we go on with my many explanations and examples of what I am talking about, here is what the California Vehicle Code (CVC) states regarding DUI; 23152 (a) It is unlawful for any person who is under the influence of any alcoholic beverage or drug, or under the combined influence of any alcoholic beverage and drug, to drive a vehicle. (b) It is unlawful for any person who has 0.08 percent or more, by weight, of alcohol in his or her blood to drive a vehicle.
The (a) section states that if you are under the influence of any alcohol and or drug, you are in violation. Section (b) makes it very clear. Your blood alcohol level is at .08 or more and you are driving a vehicle, you are in violation.
Lets take a dozen people of all varying ages (21 and older), big, little, young and old guys and gals, non-drinkers, occasional drinkers, these are the ones that prefer to be call social drinkers, so we’ll include them and not to be forgotten are the hardcore drinkers. We sit all of these folks down around the table and ask them to each have a glass of beer. Once they have finished their drink in lets say 15 minutes, we give them each another glass. A half hour has now passed and everyone has drunk two drinks. This is when things change. For the most part after waiting 15 minutes after everyone’s last drink and having everyone blow into an alcohol censoring device, BAC levels are going to be varied. The smaller bodies are more likely to have a higher level as opposed to the big bodies. Metabolism has a lot to do with this and if you’re younger and in good shape your level may be lower than that of someone who is not. Wine drinkers may be higher than the beer drinkers. With just this limited information that I have provided you, I would venture to say that no ones BAC will be near .08.
What happens during this drinking period to each individual’s ability to function is what the (a) section is addressing. Those folks that have never or very seldom consumed alcohol may be dancing on the tables or asleep in their chairs. A couple of others may be having difficultly speaking clearly or slurring their speech. Some of the hardcore folks may have no visible effects what so ever.
As the evening goes on a more drinks are consumed, each individual will be affected differently and to varying degrees. We all probably have been out with others and noticed a distinct change in their personality due to alcohol consumption. There is no law that states you have to have a good or bad personality to operate a motor vehicle. It’s probably a good thing; personality police can be pretty tough.
Impairment as it pertains to operating a motor vehicle is what is important. If that impairment is as a result of alcohol and or drug use, which is what is unlawful. Determining the extent of this impairment is what law enforcement officers are trained to recognize and gage. Field sobriety tests (FST) have been developed and are used as a basis for measuring individual’s ability to function in such a way that the impairment will not impair their ability to safely operate a vehicle.
The (b) section to me stated that regardless of how well you can walk a straight line, touch your nose or recite the alphabet, if your BAC is .08, you can no longer legally drive your vehicle and are on your way to jail.
Back to our table of drinkers. On of the women who rarely consumes alcohol and after learning that her BAC was .04 decides she was had enough and gets in her car to drive home. She is feeling what is commonly referred to as ‘no pain’ and singing to herself as she fails to stop for the stop sign. Across the intersection is a patrol officer who has just observed this act and makes an enforcement stop. We will skip all the ‘good evening I stopped you for…’ There is an odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from the ladies breath, her eyes are somewhat watery and red. She is unsteady on her feet as she exits her vehicle, yes she is nervous and tells the officer this adding that she only had two beers. As hard as she tries she fails at every attempt on the FST. A breath test is administered and registers .03/.04, yet it is not safe to allow this woman back behind the wheel of her vehicle. The lady is under the influence of alcohol. Though her BAC is less than .08, she is arrested and charged with 23152(a) CVC.
So what about the person that takes prescription medication and is unaware simply by having one drink or mixing it with another prescribed medication that they are soon to be impaired even more so than if they drank a half a bottle of Jack Daniels? If you look back at what the vehicle code states, no where does it say that the person, should have known, might have known, could have known or anything close to intentionally or unintentionally drove a vehicle under the influence. If you elect to consume an alcoholic beverage and or drugs (legal or not), that is your decision. Hopefully you and your physician have discussed the effects the medication you are taking, have on operating a motor vehicle. Medications and alcohol don’t mix and adding a motor vehicle has only one outcome and going with that decision may be your last.
As individuals were are all responsible for what we do or don’t do. The vast majority of us do make the right choices and one of those choices is to go and enjoy the ride.
Monty Hight is a retired California Highway Patrol officer and Public Information Officer. He is the North State AVOID Campaign’s Public Information Officer. He lives in Redding. More information on AVOID can be found here.