Spotting Drunk Drivers: Like Shooting Fish In A Barrel

The driver who turns up a fifth of Jack Black while singing Sweet Home Alabama at the top of his little redneck lungs, is obviously driving while under the influence of alcohol. But what about the driver who chugs only three or four drinks before sliding in behind the wheel? What makes a patrol officer zero in on that guy? And, what if our redneck driver eats an onion after consuming his alcohol, or drinks a bottle of mouthwash? Will those tricks fool the officer’s breath-testing equipment?

Let’s start with some of the signs officers look for when scanning the roads for inebriated drivers. Here are a few dead give-aways:

1) Stopping in the middle of the road for absolutely no reason. Believe it or not, this maneuver is often performed in front of a marked police car.

2) Driving the wrong way on a one-way street. The drunk driver is often seen flipping-off approaching drivers.

2) Driving in the center of the road, straddling the center line. This, too, often occurs in front of a police car.

3) Failing to dim headlights when meeting an oncoming car. Officers have to be careful here, because this driver is not always intoxicated. Older drivers, for example, can sometimes be seen stomping the left floorboard of the car. You see, that’s where the dimmer switches were located forty or fifty years ago…and I remember it well. Actually, I’ve owned a car or two with dimmer switches on the floorboard. And, I remember how difficult it was getting used to the switch on the steering column.

4) Traveling well below, or above, the posted speed limit.

Note: Exception to this rule is an old guy wearing a John Deere hat. They always drive well below the posted speed limit. May or may not be drunk. This one’s a coin toss.

Exception number two—three-foot-tall women over the age of eighty.

5) A car that strikes stationary objects on either side of the roadway as it passes by. Has the appearance of the silver ball inside a pinball machine.

6) My personal favorite is the drunk driver stopped beside the officer at a red light. First comes the casual sideways glance toward the officer, followed by a nod and the mule-eating-briars grin. Then, they just can’t help themselves. Down comes the window so they can tell the officer (you) what a fine job you’re doing. And, the idiot cannot stop himself at this point. He informs you that his third cousin twice removed on his mother’s side of his daddy’s grandmother’s family was the chief of police in Doodlebunk, Kansas. Therefore, the two of you must be related. Well, it’s pretty obvious he’s stoned out of his gourd. Of course, the bag of dope hanging out of his shirt pocket doesn’t help his case, either. Pull over, buddy.

As for the onion trick. No way. Attempting to fool breath-testing equipment is a waste of time. The machines don’t measure the amount of alcohol in the air, or in the suspect’s breath. Still, the concentration of the alcohol in the air that’s deep in the lungs is directly related to the concentration of the alcohol in the blood. The ratio of breath alcohol to blood alcohol is 2100 to 1, so the alcohol content of 2100 milliliters of exhaled air will be the same as for 1 milliliter of blood. In short, the devices do the calculations, providing results to the testing officer.

So, eat an onion if you like, you’re the one who’ll be sleeping in a jail cell with bad breath.

Better still, don’t drink and drive. Your family needs you.

17 thoughts on “Spotting Drunk Drivers: Like Shooting Fish In A Barrel

  • Christopher Mitchell

    I saw one of those people striking stationary object the other day. It wasn’t alcohol. They were texting.

  • Lee Lofland

    I should have included texting and emailing in this piece. Thanks, Christopher.

  • Bud

    “they measure the ratio between the concentration of alcohol in the blood and the concentration of alcohol that’s in deep lung air”

    Is this right? Seems like they must measure the lung-air alcohol, and apply the (known) ratio of air-to-blood to calculate the blood alcohol.

  • Jenny Milchman

    I am not a bit drunk, or in a car at the moment, and I thank you deeply for the work you did–and you do every day.

  • Lee Lofland

    You’re right. Bud. In my haste to post the piece I worded that section incorrectly. I’ve made the change. Thanks.

  • Terry Odell

    At our Civilian Police Academy course, we were allowed to help on the big traffic stops, and my favorite story is of the guy who, when the cop asked for his license/registration, said, “Sure. Hold my beer,” and handed the officer his open bottle.

    I’ll make sure Hubster is more careful about where he wears his John Deere cap.

    (PS — Lee, I’ve tried to reach you via email. Am I in your spam folder again?)


  • Lee Lofland

    Must be, Terry. I’ll check.

  • Michele Drier

    Over Thanksgiving we went to visit family who live about 150 miles away. We passed TWO different semis who were slightly over the line and their drivers were texting! Texting while driving a huge, fully-loaded semi down the freeway at 60 mph? Right up there with DUIs.

  • Lee Lofland

    You know, the Writers’ Police Academy features a workshop on texting/DUI while driving. Attendees drive on a closed course to see the effects (texting and/or wearing the “drunk googles”), and it ain’t pretty. The instructor, N.C. State Trooper Ingram, is an expert and travels the state teaching seminars and workshops. We’re lucky to get him there.

  • GunDiva

    I love this post. I spent nine years working in the ER and the one thing I have absolute zero tolerance for is drinking and driving. I refuse to drive if I’ve had an entire drink (unless I’ve had time to sit and chat for at least an hour) – it’s just not worth the potential devastation to even risk it.

  • Pat Marinelli

    I’m with you on this, GunDiva. The only time I even have a glass of wine is when I know someone else is driving. I have a real thing about drunk drivers. No idea why but it must be something my parents drummed into my head. Hubby and I also trained our kids that they could drink but to call or stay where they were if they did. They obayed that rule well.

  • Jonathan Quist

    If you want the guy in the John Deere hat, find a copy of “The Straight Story”.

    Well, okay, Alvin Straight wasn’t wearing a John Deere hat, but he was driving a John Deere lawnmower. On the highway. From Iowa to Wisconsin…

    I have reported erratic driving several times, once after a guy changed lanes into me and cut me off. While making a left turn, at a busy intersection. I later learned he was not driving impaired, just stupid. And uninsured, on a suspended license. With weed in the car…

  • Marcy

    Another great post. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve had to call on obviously drunk drivers. One spun out and then climbed out of her car (in the middle of the highway) laughing her head off and waving at us.

  • Kathy

    We were watching them give the walk in a straight line, touch nose etc one night after shift change at the convenience store where I used to work. I joked I couldn’t walk the straight line sober let alone drunk. It isn’t worth it and I used to see it all the time where we lived before. Former military I knew better but down here at Ft Hood they have a police car that sits across from a club. Half of it is a cab and half is a police car. In English and Spanish it tells the club goers to make your choice on your ride. I thought it was funny.

  • Elizabeth Zelvin

    Ain’t it the truth, Lee. The sad part is that denial is built into alcoholism, and many of the folks who are lying so ineptly to you are lying to themselves just as ineffectively–and having another to quiet their doubts. Unfortunately, the people around them pay the price, whether they’re family and friends or others on the road.
    When I was working in alcohol treatment programs, I’d have a guy reeking with ethanol looking reproachfully into my eyes and saying, “You’re a therapist–aren’t you supposed to trust me?” as I was putting the Breathalyzer to his lips. Was the power of my guilt feelings supposed to change the number on the digital readout?

  • C. C. Harrison

    Great blog, Lee. This is exactly what the officer told me on my last ride-along in Cortez, Colorado.

  • Meb Bryant

    Thanks for the holiday cheer. Drunk drivers are hilarious…right up to the point where they wipe out a family.
    Several of my friends and relatives are alcoholics and feel they have the right to drive, regardless who they
    maim or kill. I’m eternally grateful to law enforcement for their efforts to keep society safe.

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