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DUI wet lab focuses on field sobriety tests

A Nassau County demonstration to educate the public on drunk driving had participants drinking drunk on a controlled course. NHTSA kicked off its national “Over the Limit. Under Arrest.” campaign taking place for 18 days surrounding Labor Day with the controlled experiment. A focus group of 5 individuals offered themselves us public examples of how drinking impairs the ability to drive.

In a conference room at Nassau Community College, Liz Augner was the only woman to volunteer for the experiment where participants drank all morning before a series of sobriety tests and driving exercises.  The volunteers included Ms. Augner, a public anti-DUI activist, two prosecutors and the son of another anti-DUI activist.  Augner registered the highest BAC at .15, almost twice the legal limit. The other volunteers had blood alcohol levels starting at .087. On average, the participants had 5 to 6 drinks.

The field sobriety test portion of the experiment started with basic tests such as walking a straight line and standing for 30 seconds on one foot. Walking the line appeared to be the easiest test for all participants.

One telltale sign for all participants was the eye tracking tests, known as the horizontal gaze nystagmus. Officers use a pen or similar object to test how well the participant’s pupil can trace the object at close range. When a person is intoxicated, the pupils will shake as the eyes track the pen across the field of vision.

Most of the drivers chose to drive extremely slowly on the controlled course to try to pass the tests. Police officers suggested this is common behavior, but most people cannot maintain a steady speed at that pace when they are intoxicated. The participants in the experiment tended to slow down at turns even when instructed not to. In the driving tests, those people with moderate BAC’s actually performed worse.

The event was formed to educate those students and community members on the unpredictability of alcohol’s affect on driving. Blood alcohol levels are notoriously inaccurate measures of a person’s ability to drive. This has been recently proven by many states allowing the challenging of BAC results in court. The California Supreme Court recently determined all breath tests may be challenged in court. Gender, weight and food intake are just a few factors influencing BAC. A body’s chemistry may also impact how alcohol is given off in the breath.

Poor performance of those with a lower BAC is a testament to the fact that BAC is not a solid determinant of one’s ability to perform driving tasks. Some individuals may not be visibly impaired and still be unable to perform critical functions. Others, like Augner, may have very high BACs and perform poorly on the field sobriety tests but maintain caution and control while driving.

This event kicks off a nationwide campaign to raise public awareness about the crime of DUI, and it appropriately points out some of the complexities of that crime. While the results were not straightforward, they were all conclusive. Each participant was over the legal limit, and each suffered impairment while driving and performing simple tasks.


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