Until a few days ago, I’d never heard of the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus Test. Now I’ve actually taken one – and failed.
This was just one of the revelations I experienced during the strange afternoon I spent drinking in a police station with a group of inebriated officers of the law.
A few weeks ago, a contact on the Toronto police force asked me if I’d like to participate in a training exercise known as the Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST). He explained the concept: I would spend four hours drinking and being repeatedly tested on a breathalyzer. Then I’d be examined by trainee police officers who were learning how to spot drunks on the road.
I’d always wondered what it would take to hit the legal limit. Now I was getting my chance to find out. I placed my first-ever liquor order with the Toronto police: a case of Stella Artois.
Few subjects are as myth-laden and poorly understood as masking the symptoms of inebriation. A bartender once swore to me that he had beaten the breathalyzer by drinking a gallon of water and sucking on a lemon before getting behind the wheel. Back in the 1970s, my black-sheep cousin Ed advised friends to hide a peppermint in their cheek, theorizing that it would filter out the alcohol.
I doubted it, but who really knew? A friend mentioned an old WKRP in Cincinnati TV episode where disc jockey Johnny Fever confounded police in a controlled drinking experiment by improving with each drink. Maybe I could, too.
The test began at noon, in a windowless room at Toronto Police Traffic Services. The scene resembled a cross between a Super Bowl party and a science experiment. There were snacks, bottles of wine and Jack Daniels, and a bucket filled with ice. A breathalyzer machine sat on a table, its black hose uncoiled.
I was one of 11 test subjects (each of us wore a numbered label so we could be tracked on a chart that recorded our drinking). Most of the others were veteran police officers who had volunteered for the test. The situation felt like a weird variation of what Hunter S. Thompson had encountered in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – he’d been holed up in a hotel, stoned out of his mind, only to realize that he was in the middle of a police convention. Now I was engaged in an intoxication test with a room full of law enforcement officers.
Twenty five minutes later, I was finishing my second beer. Now it was time for the first breathalyzer tests. I blew into the machine, and imagined what the experience must be like for a driver who has just been hauled in off the road (not good).
My reading was 11 milligrams, which was way under the legal limit. (Your license can be suspended at the 50 milligram mark. At 80, you face a criminal charge.) But I still had a lot of drinking ahead of me. By the end of the second hour, I was finishing my sixth beer. But the police test subjects were working (and by working, I mean drinking) a lot harder than I was – some of them had downed close to a full bottle of hard liquor.
Best of all, the alcohol had loosened their tongues, and I was getting a master class on drunk driving. When it came to spotting drunk drivers, they were the vehicular equivalent of big-game hunters. What did they look for? Were there any tricks that could help me?
These guys had a vast database of experience, and they knew things that most of us never think about. For example, a vehicle with its windows rolled down on a cold night is almost always driven by a drunk. “They try to air the car out,” one of the cops said, slurring his words.
I learned another trick – if you see a RIDE program ahead, don’t turn onto a side street. Police are waiting for this, and most of the drivers who do it are over the limit. Some other drunk-driver giveaways include chewing gum, weaving, driving too slow and leaning away from the window when an officer talks to you. (One officer told me about a driver who tried to talk to him through the rear window.)
As I learned, there is a well-established choreography to an impaired-driving stop. First comes a general assessment as the police officer looks for signs that you’ve been drinking or taking drugs: slurred speech, the smell of alcohol, etc.
If he suspects that you’re impaired, the next step is a Standardized Field Sobriety Test, which is based on a technique known as Divided Attention Testing – you are forced to do several things at once.
Instead of simply walking along a pavement stripe, for example, you are ordered to do a Walk and Turn, where you must place your feet in precise sequences as you pass along the stripe, then turn 180 degrees using a preordained pattern.
Police occasionally encounter real-world versions of Johnny Fever – drivers who can execute roadside tests perfectly, even when they’re way over the legal limit. “Some of these guys drink every day of their lives,” one officer said. “They’re professional drunks.”
Now it was my turn to try. I’d downed nine beers in three hours. I walked into a hallway filled with trainee cops and their instructors. I did my best to walk straight and speak without slurring, but the Walk and Turn test didn’t go quite as well as I hoped. I walked down a line of green tape fairly accurately, but wobbled on the turn.
Now it was time for the Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN) test. I was ordered to stand with my feet together, hands at my sides, and follow the tip of a pen with my eyes as a police officer moved it out to the edges of my peripheral vision. I wasn’t allowed to move my head, so my eyes would have to swivel from one side to the other, like a submarine periscope following a moving ship.
The pen moved back and forth, just inches from my eyes, its silver tip the sole focus of my entire existence. I knew I couldn’t sway. I tried to channel Johnny Fever. Then I imagined myself as a steel pole, rooted and immovable.
An hour later, I got the bad news. I had failed virtually every test. I’d stumbled on the Walk and Turn and wobbled when I was told to stand on one foot. But the biggest giveaway had been the HGN test – my eyeballs moved in a jerking pattern known as Nystagmus, an involuntary action that occurs when you’re impaired. “No one beats the HGN,” one instructor told me. So much for Johnny Fever.
Nobody beats the breathalyzer, either. (And in case you were wondering, refusing to blow isn’t really an option, because this results in an automatic charge that carries penalties that equal the worst drunk-driving conviction.)
I’d never actually seen a breathalyzer before. Now I’d encountered the Intoxilyzer 8000, a machine that has changed countless lives. (It was the size of a tradesman’s toolbox, with a flip-out keyboard and a blue readout screen.)
By the third test, my reading was 101 – more than 20 per cent higher than the number required for a criminal charge. I’d done everything I could to keep my number low. I’d munched on snacks to absorb the alcohol, and rinsed my mouth by drinking water before blowing into the machine. It didn’t matter. I was busted.
There was some good news, though. I apparently metabolize alcohol really well. Considering how much I’d had to drink, my reading was relatively low. And when I stopped drinking, my blood alcohol level fell quickly – an hour after my last drink, I was down to 89. I knew I’d have a bad headache in a few hours, but I had discovered my hidden, entirely useless talent: I am a walking alcohol incinerator.
Oh well. As Hunter S. Thompson used to say: “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.”
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