Confessions of a Drunk Driver
One, Two, Maybe Three Glasses?
For most of us, if we're lucky, the closest we'll ever get to a drunk driver is reading the statistics (1.4 million DUI arrests each year, 17,602 people killed in drunk-driving crashes in 2006) or seeing tawdry photos of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton splashed across tabloid covers. If we notice the names published in our local newspapers' police blotter columns, maybe we shake our heads, worry and wonder: Who are these people? What were they thinking? How soon will they be back on the road?
There are as many answers to these questions as there are drunk drivers. We offer here the story of one drunk driver, likely not the image you had in mind. She's a 53-year-old educated white-collar professional. While this is the story of her first arrest, it was not, she confesses, the first time she was guilty of this crime. She could not be compelled to use her real name and asked that some personal details be changed, but the essential facts of her case are true. We showcase her story not to give her a forum to make excuses or launch a defense but for the imperfect insights she offers into the mind of a drunk driver, a unique view few of us ever get a glimpse of. --The Editors
When I woke up I was in a green-walled prison cell that smelled of puke and urine. Me. An attractive, upper-middle-class woman with two grown sons, a mortgage, two dogs, and a kitten. Me. A former court clerk. Me. A professional writer and teacher with a master's degree who learned too late about what it is like to lose your freedom to a stupid choice -- to drink and drive.
When Lieutenant Ralph Hite [all names and some identifying information have been changed] from our small-town police force pulled me over that night, my first thought was "Uh-oh," and my second was, "Maybe this will turn out all right." After all, I'd had only three glasses of wine that night, although I had had a couple more much earlier that summer Saturday afternoon at a friend's house. Not an unusual amount for me by any means. I drank two or three glasses of wine most weeknight evenings, on average, and usually twice that many -- yes, I could finish a bottle of wine and then some by myself -- on the weekends. But by this night my boyfriend and I had just broken up for what -- the fifth time? -- and I hadn't been sleeping or eating well. At 5 foot 7, age 53, I was down to 120 pounds.
Lieutenant Hite was low-key -- I thought even regretful -- as he asked for my license and registration, then whether I had been drinking. I told him the truth: that I had been at a nearby tavern, drinking and dancing, and that I was on my way home. Please, God, I begged, just let me go home.
According to the police report that was shown to me later, Lieutenant Hite pulled me over at about 12:30 a.m. because I was driving erratically -- switching speeds and hitting the shoulder, not once, but three times. In the car with me was a male acquaintance who was also at the tavern that night (and who'd also consumed his fair share of alcohol) to whom I was giving a lift. I remember thinking, when we headed out, that I was fine to drive. After all, I had driven plenty of times, over the years, after a night when I'd been drinking, and in my whole driving life had been pulled over only a few times for speeding but never ticketed, and never because I was drunk at the time. I had never passed out or blacked out while drunk. The worst side effect I'd ever had from drinking was going on a crying jag. But the moment I turned the car onto the highway that night, it occurred to me that I shouldn't be there. Usually, when I'd driven myself home after drinking, I'd stay on the back roads where it's possible to drive slowly. That night on the highway I nearly pulled over on my own for fear of losing control of the car. I couldn't keep up the posted 55-mph speed. And the lane lines were shifting in my vision.
When Lieutenant Hite asked me to take some field tests, I wasn't in a position to refuse. The first few were given in his car. I couldn't manage to say the alphabet or count forward or backward correctly. He then asked me to step out of the car for some physical tests. I'm naturally athletic and thought I might do fairly well. But I failed miserably, even with my sandals off. I couldn't even walk the white shoulder line. It was then that he asked me to step back into his squad car and take a breath test. My blood alcohol content (BAC) registered at 0.16 percent, twice the legal limit for alcohol in my state, which is 0.08.