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How Drunk Driving Field Sobriety & Breathalyzers Work

Let’s Talk About Drunk Driving

Learning to drive and then getting your driving license mean picking up a lot of new skills and, hopefully, developing good driving habits. But we’re human, we make mistakes, sometimes by accident, and sometimes just because a bad choice seemed like a good idea at the time, especially if our judgment is already compromised. As an American that’s grown up with a lot of public service announcements, advertising, and possibly even lectures at school, you’re probably well aware through years of exposure that this is a country that is very much against drunk driving and the damage it causes.

Facts And Stats About Drunk Driving In The United States

And yet, despite that, drunk driving still happens, and people still get hurt or even killed. And as long as that keeps happening, that means it’s still important to get the message out, so we’re going to do it one more time here, and add our voice to the chorus in no uncertain terms, so you know we think it’s just as uncool as the rest of the sensible people in the country. Drunk driving is stupid. Don’t do it.

Now we’ll explain exactly WHY this isn’t a good idea, and what will happen if you do attempt to drive while intoxicated and then get caught doing it.

DWI/DUI 101

The names vary a little from state to state, but usually the charge will be either driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence (DUI), and this refers not just to alcohol, but any substance capable of altering your state of consciousness, so yes, marijuana, LSD and even some prescription medicine like painkillers can all get you slapped with a DWI/DUI charge. Other states use the term operating while impaired (OWI). Just because there are no beer cans or bottles in your car, and your breath doesn’t smell of alcohol, doesn’t mean you’re free and clear. The DWI charge is usually going to be leveled by a police officer, and it normally happens when you give yourself away, which can happen in small ways, or in big, tragic life-altering ways.

The small ways—and they are numerous—are things like erratic driving, inability to stay in the lane, inconsistent speed, turning without signals, or any number of other things that people with slow reflexes and impaired judgment and senses do while driving. Again, it’s important to remember that when you’re staggeringly, raging drunk, how you think you’re doing and how you’re actually doing can be two very different things. So that sleek, suave drive down the highway, may actually be littered with swerves, screeching halts and deer running for their lives to get away from you. Police notice these things.

Of course, the other give away is if you decided to get up close and personal with a tree, or another vehicle, to the point where your car is now a fascinating new shape. That kind of thing tends to get everyone’s attention.
However, if you haven’t been involved in a major accident, but merely got pulled over, now is the time when a police officer will try to determine whether you are actually drunk or not. They can do this through two means, the field sobriety test and the substance test.

The Field Sobriety Test

This is a three part test involving testing the ability of your eyes to follow a slow moving object, slowly walking and turning, and standing on leg while counting down numbers. Combined, all three of these procedures will give anyone a pretty good indication of whether your body is compromised by some substance.

In most states, a field sobriety test is admissible as evidence in a DWI charge, so failing this is actually a pretty big deal. Don’t muck up the results as a joke, then try to take it back later, you’re just digging a hole for yourself.

How Field Sobriety Tests Work

The Substance Test

There is a machine available for typical drunk driving charges where a police officer is pretty sure you were drinking. By simply breathing into a machine with a tube affixed to it, your breath can reveal the amount of alcohol in your system. If you’re over the legal limit, it’s an automatic charge of DWI. You can refuse to take this test if you like, but if you do, your license is automatically suspended, and you can no longer drive.

One of the things you accepted (pretty much like the EULA everyone ignores when they create online digital accounts) when you got your license was “implied consent” for substance tests. This means that when you accepted your license, you accepted that you would say “yes,” if a police officer asked you to take a substance test. No acceptance, no license to drive, simple as that.

If, however, you’re under the influence of something other than alcohol, you may be required to take some other kind of drug test. The good news is that if you refuse to take the test, the police cannot actually then get the test conducted unless they get a warrant. The bad news is the courts understand this and have actually made it REALLY EASY for police to get warrants quickly in situations like this, so refusing to take the test is really just a delaying tactic that will not look so good for you when the test is later administered anyway.

How A Breathalyzer Works

What Happens Afterwards

It varies from state to state, but in general, if you are charged with and found guilty of a drunk driving charge, your punishment is going to be determined by a lot of different factors, including your state of residence, your age, your age compared to the legal drinking age, the blood alcohol content in your body, and the whether there was an accident involved or not.

There’s definitely going to be a license suspension, and there may or may not be jail time depending on the state. Your insurance rates are likely to go up, and there’s a chance that even once you are allowed to drive, your vehicle will be outfitted with a breath test device that won’t start the car unless you can prove that you’re sober.

That’s just the reality of getting caught driving drunk in America. It’s harsh, so it’s probably a good idea to just not do it.