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Published: Friday, 12/22/2000

Party time puts public in peril

BY CHRISTINA HALL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Holiday parties will be in full swing tonight. There will be gatherings with office co-workers and trips to relatives' houses for drinks and laughs.

This weekend begins about a 10-day period - including New Year's Eve - that generally involves some of the heaviest drinking all year, police and alcohol counselors said.

That means people may have a few more drinks than usual. And if they're having a good time they might not realize how much alcohol they are consuming, which can be deadly for drivers, statistics show.

In an unscientific experiment conducted by The Blade, four volunteers from Toledo agreed to see how many alcoholic drinks it would take for them to reach the legal blood-alcohol limit and how they would respond to the liquor.

The group comprised an off-duty city police officer, a domestic violence victim's advocate, an employee of the Lucas County prosecutor's office, and a Blade reporter.

Lucas County Sheriff's Deputy Tony Hook administers a field-sobriety test to Katie Bush. Lucas County Sheriff's Deputy Tony Hook administers a field-sobriety test to Katie Bush.
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The volunteers, who vary in age, size, and race, drank 10 mixed drinks - each containing 1.5 ounces of alcohol - in three hours. They showed very different results when they blew into a machine at the Lucas County jail used by area police departments to test a person's blood-alcohol content.

Last year, nearly 16,000 people died and more than 305,000 were injured in alcohol-related crashes, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. Alcohol-related fatalities account for 38 percent of all traffic fatalities.

The volunteers gathered at Mickey Finn's Pub for the experiment.

“If I don't hit 0.08, there is really something wrong,'' said giddy volunteer Katie Bush, 22, a domestic violence victim's advocate for the Family and Child Abuse Prevention Center, as she drank vodka and cranberry juice.

The trio of volunteers sitting near her, munching on light snacks, agreed.

“I'm hurtin' for certain,” said Jason Geary, 25, an employee of the Crisis Response Team, as he drank gin and tonic.

“I know I'm drunk now. I'm smoking a cigarette,” said Jason Williams, 30, a Blade reporter who opted for two types of drinks: vodka and orange juice and a beverage of vodka, triple sec, and a splash of lime.

Pat McCloskey registers a .054 on a breath test. Pat McCloskey registers a .054 on a breath test.
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Pat McCloskey, 49, a 25-year Toledo officer, who drank whiskey and 7-Up and didn't get to the proposed drunken-driving limit, laughed.

At 8:30 p.m. four Lucas County sheriff's deputies walked into the bar.

The deputies conducted field-sobriety tests on the quartet, including the finger-to-nose test, which gauges balance and control. They performed a horizontal gaze test, in which the volunteers were told to follow with their eyes as the deputy moved a pen from side to side. This tests how a person judges what is going on around them and how quickly they react.

“Oh, he was flickering,” Deputy Sheriff Dennis Walentowski said when Mr. Williams's eyes involuntarily jerked. “And when he touched his nose [with his finger], it looked like he was trying to fly a plane.”

Deputy Sheriff Mike Smith said Mr. Geary started to perform the field tests before waiting until the instructions were completed. “Either he's a good faker or he's trashed,” the deputy said after testing Mr. Geary, who swayed back and forth.

Ms. Bush and Mr. McCloskey did well on the horizontal gaze test. Mr. McCloskey had slightly slurred speech and bloodshot eyes.

It is up to law-enforcement officers to determine whether they believe the person is legally drunk based on how they were driving before they were stopped and how they performed on the field-sobriety tests.

Deputy Walentowski said he thought the volunteers would be above the legal blood-alcohol content. He thought Mr. McCloskey would have a level of 0.15.

But the 5-foot, 11 inch, 280-pound man didn't even hit the new level of 0.08. He blew a 0.054 on a test conducted by corrections Officer Jason Schneider.

Metabolism, body weight, food consumption, alcohol tolerance, and medications containing alcohol are factors that affect people when they are drinking, Toledo police Sgt. Paul Kerschbaum said.

Pat McCloskey loses his balance while taking a sobriety test. Pat McCloskey loses his balance while taking a sobriety test.
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“As little as two drinks can affect your driving, even though if someone did the blood-alcohol level to you, you'd be below the legal limit for intoxication,” said Dr. Ronald F. Maio, associate professor of emergency medicine and director of the University of Michigan's Injury Research Center.

Dr. Maio added that a single drink could have no effect on one person but have significant effects on another. The breath tests on the volunteers showed how the results can vary.

Mr. Williams - who is 5 feet, 7 inches tall and weighs 153 pounds and who was singing and reading a paper while waiting to take his test - blew a 0.107.

Ms. Bush, whom the deputies thought performed the best in the field tests, blew a 0.144. “We would have had to arrest the girl and she did fairly the best,” Sgt. Bobby Leist said of the 5-foot, 9-inch, 165-pound volunteer.

Mr. Geary, who is 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 175 pounds, fared the worst. He blew a 0.19, nearly twice the legal limit but was drinking stronger alcohol than the others.

The volunteers had nine drinks of their choice and a shot of Jagermeister, peach schnapps, and a splash of cranberry. The group averaged about three drinks an hour, which bartender Lisa Peterson said is what an average drinker can consume in that time, whether the beverage is wine, beer, or mixed drinks.

Statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show that a 170-pound man could consume about four drinks in an hour on an empty stomach before reaching the 0.08 limit and a 137-pound woman could have three drinks in that time before reaching the limit.

On the ride home, two of the volunteers, Mr. Williams and Mr. McCloskey, said they felt as if they could have driven a short distance. Mr. Geary and Ms. Bush said they would not have driven.

In 1999, 56 people died in Lucas County in traffic accidents, with 16 of those involving drunken drivers, said Gwen Neundorfer, coordinator of the Lucas County Traffic Safety Program.

Debbie Holmes, co-coordinator and a victim's advocate for the greater Toledo area Mothers Against Drunk Driving community action team, supports lowering the legal limit.

“There have been studies done that people are already impaired at 0.08. We determine we can save 500 lives a year if the limit is lowered to 0.08,” she said.

Jay Salvage, executive director of the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services Board of Lucas County, said treatment options are available for people with drinking and drug problems.

“During the holiday period, when many people are focusing on parties and social events, we feel it is appropriate to mention some of the problems stemming from alcohol and drug abuse that our community experiences every day,” he said.

President Clinton signed a bill in October that lowers the blood-alcohol drunken-driving limit from 0.10 to 0.08.

The blood-alcohol content is the amount of alcohol in a person's blood after drinking. A blood test is the most precise measure of blood-alcohol content. A breath test, commonly used by law-enforcement agencies, is fairly accurate and measures the grams of alcohol per 210 liters of breath.

In Ohio and Michigan, the blood alcohol level is 0.10. If states don't lower the limit to 0.08 by 2004, the federal government is threatening to take away millions of dollars in federal highway funds.

States that do not comply with the lower limit will lose 2 percent of federal highway funds in 2004 and up to 8 percent in 2008. Ohio received about $900 million in federal highway funding in fiscal 2000. Michigan spent about $600 million in federal dollars during 1998.



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