Drinkers surprised by voluntary breath test results

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AUBURN — Her name was Kelli and she figured she was probably all right to drive.

Maybe. Maybe not.

“I’ve had two margaritas over two hours,” she said. And then she blew into the portable breathalyzer test.

The reading: 0.081

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“I guess I shouldn’t be driving,” the 23-year-old said.

She found that out the easy way.

At Margaritas on Center Street on Friday night, police were hanging around with their breathalyzer gadget. Nobody had to blow into the device. It was purely voluntary. And yet, plenty of people were curious to see just how much booze was pumping around in their bloodstream.

“As soon as we walked through the door,” said Auburn police Lt. Tim Cougle, “people were lining up to take the test.”

Before she blew into the gizmo, Kelli had guessed her blood-alcohol level at 0.1. The reading was actually less than she had guessed.

Others went the other way. They thought they would be fine to drive and yet the breathalyzer showed otherwise.

The fact, police say, is that many people who drink and drive don’t realize they are impaired. They might have had two beers with dinner, or a glass of wine at the bar. They feel just fine and get into their cars to drive home.

The crucial time is between that last drink and the moment the key is twisted in the ignition.

“They might be at the bar or the restaurant for a couple of hours and have three or four drinks,” Cougle said. “They might be reaching that level of impairment and not even realize it.”

At any club or restaurant, you can usually find specific groups of people: those who aren’t drinking at all and those who are outright smashed.

At Margaritas, police were hoping to educate the group that falls in between.

“We’re focusing on people who are right on the edge,” Cougle said.

Many of those who lined up to take the test were indeed on the edge. They blew slightly over or slightly under the legal limit of 0.08. It was still early. The drinking was just getting started.

One woman who had two drinks blew a 0.054. Technically, she was under the legal limit. But she had just finished the second of those drinks.

“Your alcohol level is still climbing,” Cougle said.

One man guessed he would blow a 0.11 and — credit for knowing his limits — blew exactly that.

The portable breath test takes only about 20 seconds to deliver results. A drinker who thought he was OK to drive home can learn that fast whether or not he was right.

Margaritas arranged to have a cab company on standby for those who decided that maybe driving wasn’t such a great idea after all. Police were also prepared to help impaired drinkers to find a more responsible way home.

The idea of the night wasn’t to make drunk driving arrests but to prevent them.

The event was officially titled “Are You an Impaired Motorist?” by the Auburn Police Department. Teams of officers were challenged to identify problems and help generate solutions.

For Cougle and the rest of his team of officers who work the night shift, the matter of drunken driving is a big one. With many of the area clubs and popular restaurants now in Auburn, drunk drivers often start their journeys there.

For Kelli, the test revealed that her two margaritas were still in her system. She should find a driver or wait a while before getting into her car.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she said, “until I know I’m all right to drive.”

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