Jack Curtis started drinking about 45 minutes before work last Saturday night. His co-workers encouraged him. Every 10 minutes, they would pour four ounces of beer into a glass and insist that he drink it. Curtis readily complied, determined not to stop until he reached the legal limit.
For the past three years, Curtis, the owner of Jac's Beverage and Deli in Westlake, has hosted a show on WERE-AM/1300 called Beer Talk. Along with co-hosts Jerome Welliver and Larry "Eddy" Adkinson, he takes to the airwaves every Saturday night at 10 to discuss anything and everything related to beer.
This wasn't the first time Welliver and Adkinson pressured their buddy to get drunk on the air. Almost a year ago, "the first voice of beer on America's North Coast" decided to have a Drunk Show, in order to challenge President Clinton's proposal to establish a national standard of .08 Blood Alcohol Content for alcohol-impaired drivers. They were surprised by the results.
"We went into the first Drunk Show, thinking it would only take Jack a couple of beers before he hit the legal limit," says Adkinson. "We thought, you couldn't go out to dinner and have a couple beers without fearing being pulled over." Instead, it took Curtis six and a half beers in two and a half hours to blow a .1, Ohio's current legal limit, on a Breathalyzer.
"By that time," says Adkinson, "he was sloppy drunk."
So why would the Beer Talk guys continue to push the issue, after proving to themselves and their listening audience that .08 BAC is not an outrageous limit for driving under the influence? Because it's a great gimmick that they hope will draw attention to a larger political issue.
Two years ago, when the U.S. Senate passed the Highway Funding Act, it included an amendment requiring all states that want highway money to lower their BAC to .08 percent. "That's our tax money," Welliver points out. "And now they're saying we can't have it until we do what they want. They call it a federal inducement to get the states to lower the limit, but it's really blackmail." (Fortunately for Americans who do not like to be force-fed their politics, the U.S. House of Representatives has indefinitely delayed a vote on the act.)
The Ohio Tavern News estimates that it will take $26 million to lower the state's BAC .02 percent. But the federal mandate doesn't bother Senator Mike DeWine, who was quoted as saying, "I have no misgivings about a judicious use of federal inducements to . . . save precious lives."
Letting the federal government bully the State of Ohio will probably do less good than Senator DeWine believes. Studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration rank alcohol 14th on a list of causes of fatal road accidents. Speeding, tailgating, and road rage all contribute to more deaths on American highways each year than drinking.
"I just think we're going to spend millions of dollars on legislation that isn't going to make a difference," Welliver explains. "We should use that money to make stricter punishments for repeat offenders."
Protesting against lowering the BAC limit doesn't mean the Beer Talk guys take drinking and driving lightly. Guests on this year's Drunk Show, who were chosen to simulate a variety of drinking scenarios, were required to bring along a designated driver.
The beer of choice was Western Reserve Amber Ale, chosen because it has an alcohol content of 5.6 percent by volume, which represents an average beer in today's market. A regular sponsor of the show, Western Reserve also had a representative on hand to distribute the ale in four-ounce allotments every 10 minutes, the pace of a person drinking two beers an hour in a bar.
To accurately gauge each drinker's alcohol level, Beer Talk invited Bryan Schmidt of MedExam to administer Breathalyzer tests. MedExam does testing for most of Cleveland's professional sports teams and for local air-traffic controllers. Schmidt used the same Breathalyzer that local police officers employ on the streets. All the participants, identified only by their first names, had to stop drinking as soon as they hit the legal limit.
Theresa, who describes herself as a reasonably heavy drinker, was the first to register a rate over .1 percent. "I'm 21," she said. "Now is when I'm supposed to drink a little bit more." She came into the station after a regular dinner, to simulate a person who ate a meal and then went out for a couple of drinks with friends. After four beers in two hours, she was surprised to find herself at .153.
"I can't believe I already went over the limit," she said. "Now is when I would usually quit drinking for about a half-hour before driving home. I'm definitely going to be more careful. I know I'm buzzed. I could have hurt someone."
Lisa was soon to catch up with Theresa. She hadn't eaten all day, to demonstrate how quickly a person metabolizes alcohol on an empty stomach. After four beers, she registered .140 on the Breathalyzer.
Beer Talk's drinking host was not far behind, hitting .107 after five beers, despite having had dinner before the show. Welliver and Adkinson had to take temporary command of the microphone, after Curtis spent several minutes soliloquizing about his inability to drive and how important it was for the listening audience to act responsibly when going out for a few drinks.
Bill blew .133 after seven beers over a timespan of three and a half hours. While the other guests were obviously intoxicated, Bill showed very little sign of being drunk. "He seems fine to me," said his longtime friend and designated driver, Mario. "If we were in a bar, I would assume he was OK to drive." Bill reported feeling a light buzz, but no sense of impairment.
The final drinker, Bruce, downed six and a half beers in just over three hours, but never broke .066 on the Breathalyzer. Bruce was specifically chosen for the show because he is a tall man weighing close to 390 pounds. "I don't feel it at all," he shrugged.
As the Breathalyzer readings edged upward, the politics faded, and the discourse deteriorated into Saturday night bar talk. Curtis managed to regain command of the show for a closing summary, though he had little to report, other than mixed results from people of varying size and weight.
"I'm not sure what conclusions we've drawn from this experiment," he said. "But I know that, right now, I should definitely not be behind the car of a wheel."
Adrianne Ambrose can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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