Sep 21, 2018

The ABCs of B.A.C.

By Marty Nachel

In 1989, the Chicago Sun-Times ran an editorial cartoon entitled "Emissions tests we'd like to see". In the single-frame picture, an obviously inebriated driver is behind the wheel of an automobile with a back seat full of empty beer cans. Two teams of technicians are simultaneously testing the emissions of both the car and the driver. While the team at the rear of the vehicle is testing for carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides, the forward team is checking the gaseous contents of the driver's breath. As the machine monitor registers the word "tilt", a clipboard-toting technician is saying "scotch...nil, tequila...nil, beer...WHOA!..."

While the cartoonist, in all sincerity, may have been attacking the serious subject of drunken driving, he subtly lambastes all beer drinkers by suggesting that we are to bear the blame for this scourge. As I wrote in my knee-jerk response to the newspaper, "This cartoon seems to imply that beer drinkers are single-handedly responsible for this country's problem of drinking and driving. This implication is unfair to the responsible beer consumer..."

Undoubtedly, a great many arrests made for drunken driving and accidents involving alcohol can be attributed to beer consumption, but the reasons for this are obvious. To begin with, of the total number of consumers of alcoholic beverages, beer drinkers outnumber wine and spirits drinkers 2 to 1, so there are twice as many beer drinkers on the road -potentially speaking. Secondly, beer is the overwhelming drink of choice among younger people and not only does this demographic represent a large number of total drivers on the road, this nation's youth are far more likely to abuse alcohol, regardless of what form it is consumed.

The bottom line to all of this, so the point is not lost, is that alcohol itself is not the problem, and neither are those of us who consume it responsibly. The problem begins when alcohol is consumed by a small, but offensive and dangerous group of people who aren't familiar with the concept of drinking moderately when driving, or lack the foresight to consider the consequence of their failure to do so. As Abraham Lincoln so succinctly stated over a hundred years ago: "Even though people are injured by it, the injuries come not from the use of a bad thing, but from the misuse of a good thing."

Beer is already at a socio-political disadvantage in the United States. It is regularly maligned as an abused drink of the working class, while more potent beverages like fine wine and aged whiskies enjoy the hauteur of high society. Therein lies a paradox of a different sort. Is society defined by the drink it consumes, or is the drink defined by the society that consumes it? In either case, beer seems to get the short end of the stick.

Because there are, and will continue to be, irresponsible people who drink and drive, DUI (Driving Under the Influence) laws are necessary. At the heart of the DUI laws are the BAC levels, or Blood Alcohol Concentration, for short. These levels can be ascertained by law enforcement officers or medical personnel by way of a "breathalyzer", which measures the level of alcohol in your exhaled breath. This corresponds directly to the percentage of alcohol in your bloodstream. The breathalyzer test is usually only performed after the arresting officers conduct field sobriety tests, such as:

  • counting backwards from 100
  • walking a straight line
  • touching your nose with your eyes closed
  • picking up dropped coins
  • standing on one foot and tilting your head back
Failure to perform one of these or similar tests, is just cause for the officers to administer a breathalyzer test- this is usually a discretionary call. The alcohol content in your exhaled breath is measured in percentages, down to one tenth of one pecent (0.01). For example, 5 parts of alcohol in 10,000 parts of blood reads as a BAC of 0.05. In most states, you are considered legally drunk if you register, or blow, a 0.10 or higher. Many anti-alcohol groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (M.A.D.D.) and Students Against Drunk Driving (S.A.D.D.) have lobbied hard at the state level to get legal minimums lowered to 0.08; they have succeeded in fourteen states (see sidebar).

These are the legal limits for each state but be aware that some states have "presumptive" limits as well. This means that a driver who blows below the legal intoxication limit may still be charged with a DWAI, meaning "presumed to be Driving While Ability Impaired". These limits usually run between 0.05 and 0.09 (or 0.05 to 0.07 in those states with a legal limit of 0.08).

Keep in mind, blowing less than these limits does not mean that you cannot be charged with DUI, it just means there is lack of breathalyzer evidence against you. Nowadays, patrol cars come equipped with videotape recorders for such an occasion (smile, you're on Candid Camera!).

To give you an idea of what it takes to reach these BAC limits, here are some guide posts. To begin with, a "drink" is defined as .54 ounces of pure alcohol; this is equivalent to a 12 ounce bottle of beer, 4 ounces of table wine or 1 1/4 ounces of 80 proof liquor. In one hour's time, it would take a 137-lb. female 3 drinks to reach the .08 minimum limit and a 170-lb male 4 drinks. A fifth drink would raise the male up to the .10 limit and a fourth drink for the female would put her beyond it. Even by Viking standards, this consumption rate goes beyond "social drinking".

Many prohibitionist groups maintain that impairment takes place at 0.01, but most scientific studies show that 0.05 seems to be the threshold at which impairment begins (for added perspective, a blood alcohol content of between 5 and 8% is usually fatal! Concentrations of alcohol at these levels in the bloodstream cause total circulatory and respiratory collapse).

So, what are some ways to avoid driving while under the influence and the penalties that go with it?
  • abstinence never fails
  • drink slower, drink less
  • choose drinks with lower alcohol content
  • eat while drinking
  • use the "designated driver" system
  • use public transportation
The third item above raises a good point about understanding alcohol content- not just in miscellaneous drinks, but in different beers. The vast majority of beers have alcohol contents in the 4 to 5 percent alcohol by volume. Many beers may contain as much as 8 or 9 percent, and a select few contain alcohol levels equivalent to quality wines; about 12 to 14 percent. When alcohol contents are listed on distilled spirits, the alcohol content is expressed in "proof" form. The proof number is approximately twice the amount of actual alcohol contained in the liquid. For instance, 80 proof whiskey contains 40 percent ethyl alcohol; 151 rum is approximately 75 percent alcohol. On occasion, high-test imported beers may express their alcohol content in proof form; don't be fooled- it's no different from the distiller's method.

A pint's a pound the world around

The more common method of listing alcohol content in beer is by actual percentage. However, alcohol content can be expressed in one of two ways: by weight and by volume. Of the two, an alcohol by weight reading is more easily misunderstood. Why? Because alcohol weighs less than water, or beer, or many other liquids, and therefore appears to be lower when comparative measurements are made. According to this paragraph's heading, a pint of water weighs one pound (actually, a fraction of an ounce over). A pint of alcohol, on the other hand, only weighs .79 lb.

Given this, a beer with an alcohol content of 3.2 % by weight, is actually 4% by volume. A beer that is 4% by weight is actually 5% by volume. To figure it out yourself, convert an alcohol by weight reading to alcohol by volume by multiplying by 1.25. To convert an alcohol by volume reading to an alcohol by weight, multiply by 0.80.

And read labels and menus carefully, you could be consuming much more alcohol (or sometimes less) than you thought you were.

1997 Marty Nachel


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