Why Are People Ignorant About DWI?
I have a theory that the majority of people that drink alcohol, even casually, will drive a car while legally impaired. I also have a theory that somehow most drinkers think they are okay to drive because they are not falling-down drunk. Most people are not alcoholics, yet foolishly choose drinking alcohol, then driving, over insuring they are not arrested, or they don’t hurt or kill themselves or anyone else.
Leave the Roads to the Drunks
One year on New Year’s Eve my brother got home from work a little early. He needed to go run a few errands. I told him to go right away before the holiday drinkers hit the roads. He agreed and headed out. This is a sad commentary on society. Otherwise responsible citizens are shockingly irresponsible when it comes to drinking and getting behind the wheel of a car. Otherwise intelligent people are decidedly stupid about driving while intoxicated. Otherwise lawful citizens are unlawful, driving under the influence. Why are people so ignorant about drinking and driving? Why do they risk so much?
Mantra of the Impaired: “I’m Fine”
Except for people who only ever drink alcohol at home, I’d say the overwhelming majority of drinkers will rationalize getting behind the wheel of a car when they are impaired. I’ve observed this phenomenon in friends and strangers for years. I’ve heard scores of impaired individuals proclaim the mantra of the ignorant impaired masses: “I’m fine.” Clearly individuals drinking alcohol are terrible judges of their abilities.
I think the general guidance of one drink per hour is horribly misleading. I don’t think alcohol is a “one size fits all” prospect. Many factors could come into play whereby individuals could definitely be impaired after four cocktails in four hours. A person’s weight and fitness level play a role, as well as how much a person has eaten, and whether or not they are on medication.
For the sake of argument, let’s say one drink per hour is perfectly safe, keeping you below the legal limit for impairment. How many people go to a bar, club, or party and follow this rule? My brother used to have a co-worker who kept her swizzle sticks as a way to keep track of her consumption. She would collect 8 to 9 sticks in 2 to 3 hours, yet insist she was “fine” to drive.
I used to think that drinkers knew they were impaired, but just playing the odds that the chance of them getting stopped by law enforcement was low. I came to realize that they drove because they were convinced “I’m fine.”
What Would Constitute “Not Fine”?
It’s occurred to me that perhaps otherwise reasonable, intelligent people are confused about what it means to be impaired. I think they confuse “drunk” and “impaired”. Further, I think they believe that because they are not stumbling, or slurring their speech, at least they don’t think they are, they convince themselves they are “fine”. They naïvely or ignorantly believe they can drive. DUI--driving under the influence, or DWI—driving while intoxicated, are legal definitions. DUI and DWI happen before “drunk”.
Instead of convincing themselves that they are okay to drive because they can walk and talk, drinkers should be asking themselves, “Would I be under the legal limit if I was stopped by law enforcement, and compelled to blow into a breathalyzer?”
What’s the Optimal Amount to Drink?
When I was younger, and drank with friends at various social gatherings, like when I was stationed in Germany, my mantra was “drink early, drive late.” I would have one drink, usually a glass of wine, early in the gathering if I were going to be there a few hours, then no more. Not a popular stance apparently, because the rate of DUI/DWI charges among base personnel was horrible. There was a “DUI clock” at the exit to the base. If it ever got to 30 days, we got some kind of reward, like a long weekend. Unfortunately, we seldom got to collect.
What’s the best rule of thumb about the amount of alcohol you can drink and be unimpaired to drive? I’m going to go with none at all! That’s the absolute safest amount. Go to the party or gathering with the mindset that you are not going to drink and stick to it. When you have that first drink or two, your judgement has already been impacted, and it’s too easy to rationalize more from there. The other “right answer” is designated driver.
Planning for a Designated Driver
When I was in college, I was always the designated driver. It seemed that when one of my classmates was the designee, he or she would drink anyway, and I would not. We were usually going out for a night of dancing, and I always drank water. I would jokingly say I didn’t want to be impaired and fall off my shoes. So, I became the permanent designee.
A Personal Story
The first time I was stationed in San Antonio, one of my co-workers I’ll call Jill, made plans to go to listen to live music on the River Walk. I knew one of her friends, who lived in my area, I’ll call him Jim. Jim and Jill had known each other for a few years from their weekend part-time jobs. Jim and I were going to meet in a parking lot, then I would drive. Jill had another friend on temporary duty in San Antonio, and she was going to pick him up. I’ll call him Bob. Jim and I met up with Jill and Bob at a designated location, and I drove us all downtown. It was nice weather, and we enjoyed the music.
After the music, when we were walking on the River Walk, I noticed that Jim was stumbling badly. I pointed this out to Jill and Bob and declared that there was no way Jim was going to sober up enough to drive. Jill and Bob were non-committal. Jill pointed out that Jim worked seven days a week, which I knew, and that he rarely went out like this, and probably didn’t drink often.
When we all returned to my car, I confronted Jim, and stated the obvious, that he was in no condition to drive. He said “I’m fine” an annoying number of times. I tried to get Jill and Bob to weigh in, especially Jill. Jim was really Jill’s friend, he was more of an acquaintance to me. Jill and Bob did a lot of shoulder shrugging, and said things on the order of “Well, what can we do?”
I was pretty flabbergasted at this point, and here’s what I said—“It would be really good to have some back-up here, but I guess I’m on my own. Here’s what’s going to happen Jim. I will not take you to your car. I am taking you to my house and depositing you in my downstairs bedroom. I will set an alarm, but not for 04:00 for you to be at work at 5:30, because you will not be sober by then. I’ll get you up and take you to your car after you sleep it off.”
Jim sang a few more choruses of “I’m fine” and threw in a few “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me.” After delivering Jim to his car the next day, I never saw him again. Jill told me that one of her and Jim’s co-workers told Jim he ought to be thanking “that girl”, but Jim still didn’t get it. Don’t get me wrong, Jim was a really nice person, just really ignorant about this particular limitation.
It’s okay he was upset with me. At least when I dropped him off that morning, he was alive, he had not hurt or killed anyone, his daughter still had a father, and he still had a driver’s license to get to work every day. I’ve thought many times, despite how uncomfortable it felt being the only one to take the right stand that night, it was probably easier to stand up to an acquaintance that it would be a friend. Maybe that sounds crazy.
My Brother’s Personal Story is Worse
My brother has worked at several skilled nursing facilities in San Antonio. At one of his facilities, the rehabilitation staff was really close and liked to go out to dinner together, or to Happy Hour. I think this was the same group with swizzle stick woman. There was another co-worker that was notorious for leaving these events and driving while intoxicated. I’ll call her Nancy. My brother and I had discussed Nancy and others often, regarding concerns of most of them routinely drinking too much to drive.
One night, they were all going to eat, inevitably accompanied and followed by drinks. I offered to drive my brother there and pick him up after, but since the restaurant was close to our house, he said it would be cheap to get a taxi. This was before Uber and Lyft.
My brother enjoyed more than a couple drinks, making a point to telling others that he was getting a taxi home, and urging some of then to join him. When they were leaving, my brother talked Nancy into sharing a cab with him. They were walking up to the cab, and Nancy was a foot from the car door, then bolted. She made a dash for her car and sped away.
My brother came home beside himself. He tried to think who he could call. Nancy’s partner was taking care of a family member out of state. I think he even called law enforcement, but it was so long ago, I don’t remember all the specifics. The next morning my brother got the call he was terrified to get. Nancy had wrecked her car, going the wrong way on the highway, and did not survive. I know this may sound contrived, like corny fiction to make a point, but this really happened.
My brother was devastated. Friends rallied to support him. They told him something on the order of—“I know you think you could have been faster to get to her before she bolted. You may even be thinking that you should have physically restrained her.” Guess what, one of them had been in that situation with Nancy where they tried to physically restrain her, yet she escaped to her car anyway.
My brother rarely goes out with co-workers now. It’s his way of minimizing the frustration of seeing people he cares about drink and get behind the wheel of a car.
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