The wet lab: Coming to surprising conclusions

Five SCV community members cheers together at the Signal's offices on Dec. 12, as three CHP officers supervise the group's consumption for the Signal's wet test. Katharine Lotze/Signal
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A sense of awkwardness overwhelmed the room as five people trickled into a Signal conference room and took seats.

Three California Highway Patrol officers were already inside, awaiting the arrival of the people who were handpicked to participate in a demonstration.

One uniformed officer placed two nondescript black sealed containers on the oak table.

The man’s movements squelched a notable amount of chatter as five pairs of eyes grew, each hoping to catch a momentary glimpse of the containers’ contents.

About a foot of distance isolated the black boxes from a jug of vodka, several bottles of wine and an assortment of beer bottles.

Two noisy clicks of a latch later, the lid to the ominous container was opened and a small slate-colored device was brought out.

Plastic mouthpieces were handed out and the device, determined to be a portable alcohol detection tool commonly known as a “breathalyzer,” was thrust toward the face of Patrick Dietz.

“You’re going to breathe and blow air into your mouthpiece as hard as you can,” said CHP Officer Josh Greengard.

The two looked at each other and Dietz broke away to inhale and lock lips with the device.

Katelyn Tater
Katelyn Tater

“I’m super nervous,” he said. The man blew into the breathalyzer and a shrill beep sounded.
Dietz ceased breathing. After a few moments, the device’s LED display read three zeros.

It was determined Dietz and the other four candidates had not consumed alcohol before the demonstration.

The methodology
The five had assembled on a Monday morning for the CHP’s DUI wet lab hosted by The Signal, where participants were dosed with alcohol and put through a series of state standardized sobriety tests to demonstrate roadworthiness.

At a time of the year where driving under the influence peaks, the goal was to demonstrate a disconnection between the average consumer of alcohol and what the state’s legal drinking limit entails. California’s maximum legal blood-alcohol concentration, or BAC, is .08 percent.

A driver at or in excess of that limit is considered intoxicated and can be arrested for driving under the influence. But, Greengard added, drivers registering as near the state limit can still be detained and taken to jail if they fail to demonstrate safe driving practices.

For the activity, each of the five represented a wide variety of body types. They drank either beer, wine or hard liquor.

The participants
Dietz, a personal trainer and casual drinker of all three beverages, was joined by Wolf Creek Brewery and Restaurant owner Laina McFerren, real estate agent Michael Lebecki and nurses Katelyn Tatar and Kristine Alfaro.

Patrick Dietz
Patrick Dietz

The frequency of alcohol consumption between the five participants contrasted between socially drinking once a week to more than four times a week.

At 10:28 a.m., the test began with one serving of alcohol, which according to Greengard, is commonly misconstrued and more often overestimated.

A standard drink is about 12 ounces of beer, eight to nine ounces of malt liquor, five ounces of table wine and a 1.5 ounce shot of distilled spirits. Any amount over that is considered to be more than a single serving. Participants were held to this guideline.

The test
Each drink was consumed in fifteen minutes and an additional quarter-hour was set aside before testing could be conducted on the half-hour.

At 11 a.m., the breathalyzer devices reappeared and once again, each subject inhaled and exhaled into their plastic mouthpieces.

After a single shot of vodka, Lebecki registered at 0.004 percent blood-alcohol concentration.

McFerren recorded consuming one glass of wine and blew a 0.025 percent.

The test was repeated on the half-hour for each. The results for each person varied greatly.

The first to clear the legal limit was Alfaro, the only participant to not eat breakfast. After two six-ounce servings of wine, the 24-year-old cleared the 0.08 percent threshold at 11:30 a.m. with a B.A.C. of 0.114 – more than double the result of the previous test.

“I was surprised how little it takes to become intoxicated,” she said.

“Few people serve the proper serving, so in reality you are most likely not sober enough to drive after one cocktail at happy hour.”

Tatar was second to reach the mark, hitting 0.09 percent at noon; McFerren at 12:30 p.m. after three and a half glasses of wine. Dietz was last to clear after an hour without alcohol.

But the four felt intoxicated well before the machines registered at 0.08 percent.

Stark realizations
Lebecki, who ate breakfast shortly before the demonstration, consumed seven shots of vodka and topped out at 0.072 percent.

During the demonstration, he never cleared the legal limit and remarked after one drink, he didn’t feel safe to operate a vehicle.

“I was shocked to see how much everyone could drink and how their behavior changed and they were still under the level,” Lebecki said.

“I thought one drink was 0.8 and that’s that,” he added.

“They were having big booze-ups. I wouldn’t get into a car with any of them.”
Dietz was cut off at 12 p.m. when he registered at 0.06 percent, and instructed to sober up for an hour – a tactic many people assume is safe to practice, the officers confirmed.

At 12:45 p.m., his blood-alcohol concentration rose to 0.082. Though he hadn’t consumed any more beer or vodka, his levels rose and he was legally declared intoxicated.

That facet was the most shocking for the lean muscle-builder.

“Just because you stop, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear and you’re going to sober up,” Officer Brian Byrod said.

“You stopped and you’re like ‘Oh dude, I’m good here I’m going to drive home.’ You can still be over the legal limit later and it takes time.”

And contrary to popular belief, if a motorist registers lower than the legal limit of 0.08 percent and law enforcement can prove they are too drunk to drive, they can haul them off to jail and charge them with driving under the influence.

“It’s interesting to see the effect of alcohol is more than just your physical reaction and what you think you’re OK with,” McFerren said.

The Santa Clarita woman, who owns Wolf Creek Brewery and Restaurant, said she was surprised her blood alcohol level was much higher than initially anticipated.

“When you see what your BA is, it’s generally higher than you think it is.

The brewer said she plans to ensure her patrons know drinking and driving is never an option.

“If you want to go and have a few drinks, have a plan to pick you up and get home safely,” she said.

Though none of the participants admitted to ever driving under the influence, the five each agreed post-demonstration they were more likely to use a driving service such as Uber or Lyft when socially drinking.

“If you’re affected in the least, I don’t think you should drive,” Lebecki said. “And don’t do the coffee thing, all you are is a wide-awake drunk.”

The five participants were all given a lift courtesy of The Signal and CHP to their next destinations.

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