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Race with the Devil

Local politicos drink and drive for good cause

By R. V. Scheide

Santa Rosa mayor Sharon Wright admits she's a cheap date. After three glasses of wine, she's as giddy as a frolicsome colt. Of course, it is only 11:30 in the morning. Perhaps she had but a light breakfast before coming to the seventh annual Holiday Sobriety Challenge at Infineon Raceway this past Dec. 19.

The purpose of the challenge is to raise awareness about the dangers of drunk driving, particularly during the holiday season. The event invites Northern California politicians, sports celebrities, and other community figures to test their capacity to handle an automobile after consuming a small amount of alcohol.

The participants, which this year included Wright, Petaluma mayor David Glass, and San Francisco Giants pitcher and San Rafael native Jesse Foppert, first drink up to three glasses of wine or beer as officers from various North Bay law enforcement jurisdictions monitor them with field sobriety tests and portable Breathalyzers.

Once the contestants (or as the CHP calls them, "test subjects") are juiced up enough, they hop in one of the raceway's pace cars and under the watchful eye of an instructor from the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School riding along for safety, attempt to navigate a test course set up with traffic cones in a parking lot.

Wright was winner of the unofficial contest to see who could get the tipsiest downing three drinks in a half-hour or so. For most of the participants, it was a bit early for that kind of power drinking, so encouragement was required.

"Pound it fast!" Sgt. Wayne Liese of the CHP urged Foppert, pumping his fist at the veritable beanpole of a pitcher, who was on his third drink and seemed totally unphased. "I need you to pound it fast!"

According to the CHP's drink chart guide, a person Foppert's size, way over six feet tall and about 220 pounds, can have two drinks in a two-hour period and remain under the legal limit for alcohol in the blood, which is .08 in the state of California. A person Wright's size, 120 pounds or so, can have just one drink over the same time period. Thus the effects of slamming three drinks in a half-hour were predictable: the participants, even eventually Foppert, definitely got a buzz on.

"I can feel it," the pitcher said. "There's no way I would drive right now."

"Not even to the stadium?" someone quipped.

He shook his head no.

San Rafael motorcycle patrolman Mike Mathus asked Josh Mooney, a KFTY TV-50 employee who had downed three beers, to perform a number of different tasks, including balancing on each foot for 10 seconds and touching his thumbs to his fingertips while counting forward and backward--one-two-three-four, four-three-two-one--three times. On the latter exercise, Mathus stopped Mooney on the sixth repetition.

"How many times did I tell you to repeat that?"

"I forgot," Mooney admitted.

Mathus shook his head with mock concern.

"You're scaring me, Mike!" Mooney half-joked.

In the real world, the patrolman explained, this is where the field sobriety test starts getting serious. Not being able to follow simple instructions is potentially a sign of intoxication. Mathus held a pen up in front of Mooney's face and asked him to follow it with his eyes as the officer waved it back and forth like a pendulum. The officer suddenly broke the pen's rhythm, and Mooney's eyes "bounced"--visibly rattled in their sockets--trying to adjust to the change in movement.

Judging by the eye-bounce, Mathus estimated Mooney's blood alcohol content to be about .06. Mooney then blew into a portable field Breathalyzer, which indicated his level to be .03. Mathus, who prefers the field test over the portable unit for determining whether to haul a suspect in, chalked the difference up to time--all of the alcohol had not yet entered Mooney's bloodstream. By the time a suspect is taken to the police station for testing, it would be.

Although Mooney was well within the legal limit, Mathus pointed out an interesting facet of DUI law many people don't realize until after their arrest. Mooney, a stout 200-pounder who said he doesn't drink that often, was clearly intoxicated. If such intoxication leads to reckless driving, the suspect could be cited for having any alcohol in his system, even if the level doesn't exceed the legal limit.

In fact, although no one in this year's challenge exceeded .08 on the portable Breathalyzer, no one passed the field sobriety test with flying colors, either. The message sent by law enforcement is fairly clear: When it comes to drinking and driving, even a little booze may be too much, especially during the holidays, when traffic is denser and weather conditions are worse.

How does that message play in a region where a major sector of the economy involves enticing people to drive hundreds of miles in order to sample the area's fine alcoholic beverages?

"Let's face it, a large part of the economy is derived from the production of alcohol by the wineries," said Capt. Gene Lyerla of the Napa County Sheriff's Department. But he added the industry has long recognized that supporting DUI programs works to its benefit. "The wineries are very supportive of our DUI campaign. No one's said anything negative about the checkpoints and awareness programs."

He said many wineries train tasting-room employees to recognize when someone is too drunk to drive. When such customers drive off anyway, staff are trained to alert other wineries that someone who has already had too much to drink is heading their way.

If such scrutiny sounds a bit paranoid to some, Lyerla has all too often seen the damage alcohol can cause. The highest blood alcohol level he's ever seen in someone busted behind the wheel was .48. "The guy just fell out of the car after we pulled him over," he chuckled. "Some doctors say you're dead at .50."

The worst drunk-driving accident he recalls was a carload of four young adults heading home to Napa one night from the city. The driver was drunk and wrapped the car around a tree, killing the foursome. "At least they didn't hit another vehicle and kill anybody else," he said.

Drunk driving is a deadly serious subject that has touched many North Bay families. Mayor Wright raised four boys to grown men and says her family had its "fair share of DUIs." Despite ever stiffer DUI penalties, the carnage continues. Last year, the CHP reported that alcohol was involved in 162 collision-related fatalities in nine Bay Area counties; an additional 5,278 persons were injured.

Perhaps because it is such a gloomy topic, the Holiday Sobriety Challenge is a light-hearted affair. No one is allowed to drink without having someone else to drive them home, avoiding potential tragedies, such as getting a DUI from the same officer who an hour ago was encouraging you to pound it down.

Mayor Wright was blowing .052 by the time her turn at the wheel came. Santa Rosa police officer Jerry Soares conducted a field sobriety test on the mayor as light rain drizzled on the canopy set up in the parking lot. Even though the mayor was under the limit, in the real world, Soares wouldn't have let her drive.

"I would have asked her if there was someone who could give her a ride home," he said as the mayor giggled. "You can tell she's not a heavy drinker."

Real concern for Wright's passengers gripped those gathered at the scene as she slipped behind the wheel and started honking the horn, trying to get Glass, parked in front of her, to pull out onto the course. As he entered the first obstacle, she raced the engine and suddenly the Dodge Intrepid squealed out of the block as though Shirley "Cha-Cha" Muldowney were driving, totally missing the cones and running off the course.

"It's over!" said one TV reporter, turning to the camerman. "Did you get that?"

Wright eventually regained the track, driving slowly at that point. She was still out there, trying to parallel park, as Glass returned. The instructor informed Glass, who drove slowly and cautiously, that he failed the test. After three drinks, the mayor of Petaluma just couldn't perform the sort of multitasking required to drive a car.

"Don't have a drink and drive, don't have three drinks and drive," he said. He limits himself to one drink whenever he has to drive. When it comes to drinking and driving, that may be the safest guideline to follow.

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From the December 25-31, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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