Confessions of a Drunk Driver

When there's a knock at the door at 6:30 a.m., you know it isn't for something trivial. It turned out to be what I'd been expecting for weeks: a Highway Patrol officer to take me away for drunk driving.

He waited outside while I dressed, then put me in his car and drove me to Anaheim Stadium. Waiting there were 11 others who had been rounded up.

This was going to be a day with an aura of unreality. The officers who had custody of us would diligently pour enough liquor down our throats to make us intoxicated, according to the legal standard--a 0.1% alcohol concentration in the blood. Then we volunteers would drive a course laid out in the parking lot, one we had already driven while sober, to see just what drunk driving is.

They called it the "Driving Under the Influence Exposition," and its premise was simple: Until you do it and soberly ponder the result, you don't truly realize just how dangerous drunk driving is. I've drunk and been drunk, but I've never let myself get out of hand. I can tell when I've lost it, and at those times I still have enough presence of mind to pull back. I stay cool and off the road when I'm drunk.

"That's what they all say," said Patrol Officer Sandy Salgado, who had been assigned as my baby sitter for the day. "Wait," she said.

They tested our coordination and reaction times on a series of computers that operated like video games. We blew into the breathalyzer to confirm that we were starting out absolutely sober.

Sgt. Bill Elliott described the "relatively simple course" we would drive, a combination of slaloms, turns and parking maneuvers, driven forward and backward. A demonstration driver covered it in 1 minute, 17 seconds and brushed only one boundary marker.

We all drove it twice while sober. After a dreadful first run, I did what turned out to be about average on the second.

Then, at 10:30 in the morning, Officer Sandy brought me my first drink, and the sense of unreality intensified. I was being served vodka tonics by a uniformed cocktail waitress who was carrying handcuffs and a gun. I resolved to tip big.

Someone came over with a clipboard and told her they estimated it would take 10 drinks--that's 10 ounces of vodka--in about 1 1/2 hours to get me up to 0.1. I'm not as svelte as I once was. If you weigh a ton, you have to drink a ton to get up there.

"Drink," Officer Sandy said. So I drank.

After the third in less than half an hour, I lost my enthusiasm for liquor. Officer Sandy got me another, however, and we continued chatting about the subject at hand.

"You're not going to believe that you are as impaired as you are," she said. She had undergone a similar test, and "I became so uninhibited! The first time I drove sober, I did great. When I was drunk, I didn't care. I was having a blast. You lose your judgment and you take chances."

I was skeptical about that. I'd had a lot to drink already and my judgment wasn't clouded. The fact that I was fantasizing making a pass at her didn't seem out of line. She was armed, and her husband, another cop, was there too. Sure, Steve, go ahead. But she got up and got me another drink.

After 12 shots in 2 hours and 15 minutes, I strode up to the breathalyzer. "You can do it, Steve!" Officer Sandy shouted. But I didn't. I hit 0.08, but I wasn't surprised. I felt pretty buzzed, but not so much that if I really bore down, I wouldn't be able to summon back my coordination and alertness.

To prove it, I asked Officer Sandy to give me a field sobriety test. I tape-recorded it. I listened to the tape the next day. My speech was not slurred, my words came easily and I sounded full of confidence. But while standing on one foot and holding the other up in front of me, I could not maintain my balance while I counted backward from 100 to 70.

"It's amazingly difficult," I heard myself say.

"You're having to think about it," Officer Sandy observed. "He's having problems," she remarked to another officer.

To my surprise, I heard myself immediately become defensive. "Well, yeah, I'm drunk!" I said. I thought I had said it as a wisecrack, but it had come out serious.

I did the heel-to-toe walk--nine paces forward, turn around, seven paces back, and count them out loud. With the very first step, I was in trouble.

"Oh, Jesus, this is hard! Two, three, four, five, six--this is amazing!-- seven, eight--I'm going to jail, aren't I?"

"I can't tell you till you're done," she said. "So far you haven't done so good."

" I even know that." (Again I was shocked. I sounded ever-so-slightly surly.) "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Not so bad on the way back, right?"

No comment from her. She handed me pen and paper. "Write the English alphabet," she said.

"As opposed to the Spanish alphabet, right?" I cracked. I remember thinking at the time that it was a terribly clever remark. But listening to the tape, I felt the embarrassment of a son sent to fetch his father from the saloon.

I finished another drink, a double, then finally registered 0.1 on the breathalyzer. As I was waiting my turn to drive, I watched a drunken deputy district attorney slosh her way through the course. As she pulled up to the finish line, she threw her arms out as if doing a stage bow. She looked over at us and grinned.

I remember what I thought as I was walking out for my turn: She's acting like a jerk. I didn't realize then that I was calling the kettle black.

On Sunday: I learn the awful truth.

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