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December 29, 2005



As you are no doubt well aware, this Saturday night is New Year's Eve. I'm not sure where the tradition arose, but for most people it means an evening of drinking, often to excess, topped off, but not necessarily ending, with a champagne toast at midnight -- and, if you're lucky, someone you love (or at least like a lot) nearby to share a New Year's kiss.

I am not about to offer advice for the lovelorn, but I can pass along some things I leaned about drinking, courtesy of a professor at Humboldt State whose name I have forgotten -- a good thing for him, since my lesson did not come from him. It came from an expert witness at his drunk driving trial. I was on the jury.

It seemed this prof spent many an afternoon at a place just off the Arcata Plaza called Marino's, which, I'm sorry to say, burned to the ground a few years ago. One afternoon after a visit to his favorite drinking establishment he chanced to meet a carload of Mormon youth -- the hard way. His car sideswiped theirs as he took a wide turn onto his street. No one was hurt, but the Arcata police were called. By chance, the responding officer was at the end of his shift and, after getting the prof's ID, he turned the case over to another officer, who soon discovered that the professor was nowhere to be found. Since the cop had the man's driver's license, he had an address, a house right nearby. That's where he found the errant driver, who came to the door quite drunk and was arrested. A subsequent test at the Humboldt County Jail showed a blood alcohol level well over the legal limit.

The crux of his defense rested on his story about what happened after the accident. He explained that he was not really drunk when it happened, but was so shaken up that he wandered home from the scene and poured himself a drink -- an 8 oz. glass of straight vodka -- and that was why he was so intoxicated by the time he was taken in and tested.

Here's where the educational part came in. An expert witness presented the jury with a crash course in alcohol absorption and the factors that affect the absorption rate.

 You probably already know that beer has the least amount of alcohol: Under 5 percent, although most people I know drink ale or stout or other upscale microbrews that have much more kick. In fact, they can match the 12 percent on up typically found in wines (including champagne) or approach the 18-20 percent you get in sherry or sweet dessert wines. (Ask your beertender.) Hard liquor ranges from 40 to 50 percent (the proof number is double the percentage). The rule of thumb is that a can of beer, a 4 oz. glass of wine and a shot of booze all contain about 1/2 oz. of alcohol, so they all have the same effect.

Sort of, but not exactly. A number of extenuating factors come into play with that drink: First, there's how fast you drink it. If you nurse a drink for an hour or two, it does not have as much effect -- your body will oxidize the alcohol and you will not cop much of a buzz. If, on the other hand you chug, the booze will go to straight to your head. For many, that is the reason for chugging.

Eating food before and while drinking tends to slow absorption into the bloodstream. Same with adding something to your drink to dilute it: Mixing your vodka with orange juice (a screwdriver) or grapefruit juice (a greyhound) will slow down drunkenness. But not all mixers are equal. Carbonation speeds absorption, so a whiskey and soda will hit you quicker than a whiskey and water. Weight is also important: Skinny folks get buzzed faster than fatties. And for some reason women process alcohol at a slower rate than men.

A number of the above factors came into play when the prof's defense lawyer tried to explain how his blood could show he was well over .20 percent when he was tested, but not legally drunk (.08 is the limit) when he was driving. Charts and graphs showed it was a narrow possibility. Unfortunately, the whole argument rested on the believability of the professor, who looked like he was in serious need of a drink when he took the stand. We found him guilty as charged.

No matter what you choose to drink Saturday night and at whatever rate, please be careful. You can get just as drunk sipping expensive Scotch or fine champagne from delicate flutes as you can chugging 40s or knocking back straight shots of rotgut.

First and foremost, don't let your intoxicated mind convince you that you can get behind the wheel after you've been drinking. Party with a designated driver. Take a cab home. Or check the see the sidebar at right, where (under the drawing of a car in the drink) we explain how even a lonely soul can get his or her car home without driving. Have fun, but be safe about it. And have a happy New Year! We'll talk about hangover cures another day.


We know what it's like when our little '89 Ford Festiva tells us the party is over. She's not going any further, even if it is dark and you're on a spooky road flanked by redwood groves where animals certainly live and it's raining because it always rains. You have a broke-down Ford Festiva, but at least you have a cell phone, so call your ma. She lives in Boston so she can't help. So you call Humboldt Towing. They come rescue you. And as you're driving away, hauling the car behind you, you're happy to be safe and to be going home. Any other problems, like who's gonna fix your Festiva, can be figured out tomorrow. So you get to talking with the driver and she says that during the holidays Humboldt Towing picks up drinkers in the greater Arcata/Eureka area and tows their car home for free! The company has been doing this for about 11 years, from mid-December to Jan. 2. Leroy and Wanda Hoffman, the owners of Humboldt Towing, want to keep drunk drivers off the road because no one needs a holiday tragedy. All the employees get paid overtime so it's really not a bad gig, the driver says. So you keep Humboldt Towing's number (442-4537) on your cell phone. By New Year's Eve, the Festiva's alternator has been replaced. You head to a party, you get a little tipsy, and when someone suggests a game of Twister you know that's your cue to leave. You call Humboldt Towing. They come rescue you. And as you're driving away with the Festiva behind you, you're happy to be safe and to be going home. -- Helen Sanderson


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