If a couple goes to a restaurant and shares a bottle of wine over dinner - do they now have to take a taxi home to avoid arrest under a stricter alcohol law which took effect Saturday?
Maybe, maybe not, according to police. The answer changes with each drinker.
The new law lowers the allowable blood alcohol level in drivers from 0.10 to 0.08, and state troopers expect the change to bump drunken-driving arrests 5 percent statewide.
Although law enforcement officials cannot say with certainty how much liquor is too much for each individual, police offered some guidelines.
Knowing your new limits
The states new drunken-driving law at a glance:
Lowers blood alcohol limit from .10 to .08 percent
State expects 5 percent increase in drunken driving arrests
Applies to people driving motor vehicles, aircraft and watercraft
A 155-pound man probably would have to drink four alcoholic beverages in one hour on an empty stomach to register 0.08, said Sgt. John Boltjes, who supervises the Juneau Police Department's alcohol program.
Under the old standard, the same man probably would reach a 0.10 blood-alcohol level after consuming five drinks in one hour.
The difference between the old and new limits is roughly one beer, one glass of wine or one shot of hard liquor, Boltjes said. However, he cautioned that the guidelines change depending on the person and circumstances.
A 155-pound man who drinks four beers but eats at the same time might not reach the 0.08 limit, while a 155-pound man in poor health might exceed the legal level with less alcohol.
Generally the heavier you are, the more you can drink and stay within the legal limit. A 250-pound person who ingests more than four beers in one hour might fall below 0.08, while a 110-pound person might go over the limit with two beers.
Boltjes recommended all drivers stop drinking after one beverage or call a taxi.
"When you decide to take your second drink, you should probably be lining up a ride home," he said.
He also noted women generally register at 0.08 with less alcohol than men. A 155-pound woman might reach the new limit after three drinks in one hour, he said.
"Women have slightly less water in their bodies than men so consequently, given the same amount of alcohol, they will achieve a slightly higher level of intoxication," Boltjes said.
Even people below 0.08 can get busted for drunken driving. The new law means a driver is presumed intoxicated if his blood alcohol level is 0.08 or more. However, police can pin a DWI offense on a driver with a blood-alcohol level as low as 0.05, if they can show the person was too impaired to drive.
Several years ago Juneau police tested three volunteers to measure their reaction to alcohol. One woman who was not used to drinking was significantly impaired after three shots of liquor, even though her blood alcohol registered 0.05.
Boltjes emphasized that people who drink infrequently are more likely to be impaired by small amounts of alcohol. Conversely, longtime drinkers might not feel intoxicated at 0.08 or 0.10.
"Alcohol is a poison as far as your body is concerned," Boltjes said. "If you drink it long enough, your body will get used to it and build up tolerance to it."
Bar owner Judy McDonald opposed the new limit, citing concern that people who consume only two drinks could face drunken-driving convictions. She said lawmakers wrongly targeted moderate drinkers in their effort to crack down on chronic drunken drivers.
"Most of them that go out and drink and drive have done it over and over again - they don't learn. Those are the kinds of people we need to take off the roads," said McDonald, owner of the Lucky Lady in downtown Juneau.
However, Boltjes doubted the new law would prompt many more arrests of moderate drinkers because the average drunken driver busted in Juneau registers at 0.20 - far above the new limit.
"The numbers of people who occur at the extremes of that range are going to be few," he said. "We don't have that many drivers down at the bottom end of the scales."
Bar manager Scott Fry supported the change, saying it could help make the roads safer.
"Hopefully it makes people more accountable for their actions and more responsible about how much they do drink," said Fry, manager of The Alaskan bar downtown.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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