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British Columbia How much is too much? The Globe tests B.C.'s drunk-driving limit

The Globe and Mail tests Breathalyzers at the Hamilton Street Grill, 1009 Hamilton Street in Vancouver, BC, November 10, 2010.

Laura Leyshon for the Globe and Mail/laura leyshon The Globe and Mail

Since British Columbia implemented tougher drunk-driving laws in September, people throughout the province have asked themselves how much booze it would take to put them over the 0.05 threshold.

Wary of roadside suspensions and having their vehicles impounded, some people - a lot of them, according to anecdotal reports from the hospitality sector - chose to err on the side of caution and not drink at all.

Now the province is tempering its temperance approach. In November, less than two months after the new penalties came into effect, newly appointed Solicitor-General Rich Coleman said the province would review the regulations in light of their impact on bars and restaurants and other factors, including potential legal challenges from drivers.

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Mr. Coleman launched a public education campaign, saying "most people can still enjoy a glass of wine with dinner or a beer after work." That's consistent with information from other groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which says that an 185-pound man can have three standard drinks over a two-hour period and be under the .05 threshold. A 130-pound woman could have two standard drinks in the same time.

The Globe put Mr. Coleman's assertion to the test, taking some over-the-counter blood alcohol testing units along for the ride.

A menu for sober review:

APPETIZER:

Don't eat the booze-soaked olives.

Waiting my turn to get a baseline reading from a digital breathalyzer sold online, I absentmindedly munch two olives from a three-ounce vodka martini.

I blow a .048.

We learn it's most effective to wait at least 20 minutes between drinking and blowing, and to have a drink of water before the test.

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ENTREE:

French fries are your friend.

A male colleague, 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, digs in to the bread basket, orders French fries with his meal - a generous serving of ribs - and drinks draft beer.

An hour into the evening, during which he consumes two pints and a meal, he blows positive - over the legal limit - on a single-use, disposable tester purchased at a liquor store for $5.99.

By the time we leave the restaurant, he registers a .04 on the digital breathalyzer.

A female colleague, 5-foot-8 and 125 pounds, drinks two glasses of white wine and also has the ribs, although she doesn't manage to make her way through the hefty serving.

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She registers .055 when it's time to leave.

My second male colleague, 5-foot-8 and 150 pounds, has a Scotch before dinner and a glass of wine with his meal - tuna with roasted potatoes.

Just before leaving the restaurant, he registers a road-safe .017.

After the ill-advised martini and nearly two glasses of wine, followed by picking at my food in between breath tests and taking notes, I - 5 foot 7, 135 pounds - blow .082.

I hail a cab.

DESSERT:

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You might be able to beat a breathalyzer, but why try?

Later in the evening, I share a nightcap - mine is water - with a group of friends who include a doctor and a microbiologist. After a discussion that touches on alveoli, body mass and hyperventilation, an experiment ensues. Using the single-use tester from the liquor store, one man blows over the legal limit after a glass of single-malt Scotch. On his second try, using another single-use tester, he takes a few rushed deep breaths, and then deliberately tries to blow without fully emptying his lungs. The unit registers under the legal limit.

Police who administer roadside tests have more sophisticated equipment and are familiar with beat-the-breathalyzer routines.

There are a number of different blood alcohol testers on the market, as well as online calculators and even mobile phone applications. Some methods are more sophisticated than others, but all come with warnings and caveats. A $20 version obtained from a convenience store failed to work at all.

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