BEHIND the wheel after three bottles of beer, at 6.30pm, I am careening around a corner, when I hear a bang. I hit the brakes. It takes 1.4 seconds to stop.
Conducting a ‘driving under the influence’ experiment at Bantry Driving Academy in West Cork, I’d made a catastrophic mess of reversing.
I’d taken the wrong exit off the roundabout and, supremely confident in my diminished driving skills, ‘threw all caution to the wind.’ Volunteer drink-driver, Finbarr O’Connell (25), was less reckless. But after four bottles of beer, his reaction and task-completion times were slower and he had tried to start in third gear.
Driving instructor, Mary Keohane, director at Bantry Driving Academy, said of our performances: “Post-alcohol, you were both more confident, but definitely more dangerous, no doubt about it.”
The test began at 4pm at the enclosed driving arena. We were breathalysed by Bantry Garda Damian White to ensure sobriety. The first test involved a driving simulator, which is a computerised version of a driving test. It is notoriously difficult, which explains our multiple crashes and chronic results.
Thankfully, out navigating the track in a 2006 Ford Focus test vehicle, we fared better.
A series of driving manoeuvres was set as a benchmark to test our co-ordination and reaction.
These involved reversing 500m around the track, circling the roundabout and selecting the correct exit, weaving in and out of traffic cones, parallel-parking and an emergency stop.
It took me 3.4 seconds longer to parallel park than it did Finbarr. He was 6.7 seconds faster weaving the cones, and 1.2 seconds faster on the emergency stop.
Reversing round the track, I finished 23 seconds ahead of Finbarr’s time.
Declared by our instructor to be competent drivers, the drinking commenced.
In Finbarr’s home town, Drimoleague, in rural west Cork, the number of pubs has halved over the past decade.
“There were eight pubs in town ten years ago. Now, there are four. It’s a pity, seeing the country pubs struggling. But it’s difficult to see some of them surviving when people have to drive to get there,” he said.
Kerry County councillor, Danny Healy-Rae, sparked heated debate last year with his suggestion of drink-driving permits to combat rural isolation.
But solicitor Eamon Murray, of the Bantry firm, Murray Thornton, said loneliness and suicide would exist regardless.
“What most people don’t realise is that one unit will impair your judgement. One and a half units, depending on your metabolism, will put you over the limit,” he said.
Operating a rural practice, Murray said there was a definite increase in what he calls ‘morning after’ syndrome, particularly resulting from generous home measures of alcohol.
“You need at least 12 hours from the bottle to the throttle. It takes your body an hour to process a unit of alcohol.
“People are having a few glasses of Merlot, going to bed at midnight, and going to work in the morning. That’s what we’re seeing more of in the courts,” he said.
After one bottle of 5.5%-strength beer, I was feeling the effects. I had not eaten lunch. After two, I was tipsy and failed the breathalyser.
Finbarr ate lunch. After his first pint of beer, at 5.3%, he passed the breath test, though it registered the presence of alcohol.
“I’m definitely feeling the effects, though I think a lot of it is to do with the environment of this test, rather than sitting in the pub, not taking much notice of how much you’re drinking and how you are feeling. It’s easier to forget. But I wouldn’t drive now, even though I passed the breath test,” he said.
On completion of his second pint, (four units of alcohol) he failed the breathalyser.
At 6pm, after my third bottle of beer, the effects are obvious, said supervisory nurse, Mary O’Regan-Barsum, attending on behalf of the local Lions Club.
My eyes were glassy, my cheeks flushed, she said. At this point, Finbarr and I were more confident, talkative and engaging, said Garda White.
“The change in behaviour is fairly obvious. You are more giddy, he’s a little more loose,” he said.
In between drinks, we tested the effects of the alcohol on our driving, using the simulator. On the final round, contrary to expectations, our scores had improved.
We both agreed the improved performance was a combination of increased confidence and better knowledge of the computerised course.
Back out on the driving track, inhibitions out the window, we were both guilty of ‘putting the boot down,’ Mrs Keohane said.
Finbarr’s reaction times suffered: it took him longer to parallel-park and complete the cones. However, his emergency stop was faster by fractions of a second.
It took him almost one minute and 60 seconds longer to complete the reversing task, though it was now dark.
I was unable to finish reversing the 500m and had to be stopped before hitting a wall. It took me 7.4 seconds longer to parallel park than when sober. Indicative of heightened recklessness, however, I was three seconds faster completing the cones and my emergency reaction time had halved.
Instructor Keohane described the differences in our post-alcohol driving skills.
“Finbarr displayed confusion by taking off in third, instead of first gear. His cones were much slower and more careful.
“Louise’s reversing was much slower and disorientated. She did well parallel-parking, though it was slower and more cautious.
“Her cones were faster, because she threw caution to the wind. There was a lot of revving from both drivers,” she said.
At Bantry garda station, Garda White explained how the high-tech breath-test machine, the Evidenzer, takes detailed readings to determine whether drivers are over the limit.
A motorist who fails the roadside breathalyser is brought to the station and accompanied during a 20 minute, pre-test phase to ensure nothing is ingested that could affect the reading.
A slow, deep exhale is required as the alcohol settles at the bottom of the lungs. It is this breath from the bottom of the lungs that gives the most accurate reading of blood-alcohol levels available from a breath test.
At 7.32pm, an hour and fifteen minutes after Finbarr finished his last drink, the machine registers ‘mouth alcohol’ present in his test.
“If it detects something there, it shuts down. That’s for fail-safe reasons, for the protection of the person being tested. Instead of giving a reading that’s unfair to you, it recommends a blood or urine sample,” Garda White said.
For me, the machine returns a reading of 17 micrograms of alcohol per 100 micrograms of breath. The legal limit for driving is 22. While I’m under the limit for normal drivers, the limit for specified drivers is nine, which includes learners, commercial drivers, and any driver who fails to present their licence when pulled over.
I’ve a fast metabolism, but I’m surprised to find I’m not over the limit. The effects of three drinks on my driving were marked.
In a closed environment, with no pedestrians, cyclists or oncoming traffic, the experiment was a simple test of our own abilities.
More than anything else, the results depict dangerous levels of over-confidence.
“It’s a false perception of your perceived abilities and it shows immeasurably that if someone is drinking, they shouldn’t be driving,” Garda White said.
*www.bantrydrivingacademy.ie Tel: 027-56464