Last week in Jackson, I attended the Safe and Sober Workshop conducted under the auspices of the Mississippi Association of Highway Safety Leaders (MAHSL), Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and the American Automobile Association (AAA) to learn more about blood alcohol content (BAC) and driving under the influence (DUI) in Mississippi (MS).

I had, I am told, a wonderful time. Can't say for sure, because the shank of the evening is a little cloudy in my memory. I do recall quite vividly, however, the morning after because there was a little man tap-dancing in my head.

You see, the folks behind the legislative campaign to reform Mississippi's Implied Consent Law asked me to participate in a little demonstration with five other media and law enforcement types for the benefit of curious legislators to show the effects of alcohol on one's ability to drive and the inherent weaknesses in Mississippi's existing drunk driving laws brought to light last year in the now infamous drunk-driving escapade by Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Chuck McRae.

In other words, MAHSL, MADD, and AAA invited me to get DRUNK and see if I could pass the MS DUI BAC test. With me so far?

Five of us including Mary Ann Lewis of the City of Tupelo, Gary Pettus of the Clarion-Ledger, Brenda Moore, wife of MADD executive director Rodger Moore, and Bill Snyder of WLOX-TV in Biloxi were taken to a room at the Ramada Coliseum under police supervision and instructed to drink the alcoholic beverage of our choice under controlled conditions for a couple of hours. We were tested on the Intoxilyzer machine for blood alcohol content prior to the start of our drinking binge, again after an hour, and again after two hours. We were then taken to a reception room in the hotel and given the field sobriety test and tested a fourth time on the Intoxilyzer in front of a crowd of lawmakers who will vote later in the 1996 session on the proposed DUI changes.

I registered .000 on my first Intoxilyzer test which pleased me greatly since I hadn't had a drink in several months and it was my first time ever to confront a police breath test.

I chose my poison vodka and tonic. It was the first vodka and tonic served me by a uniformed, pistol-toting officer of the law. He even put a lime slice in it.

I had two ounces of vodka at 3:19 p.m., three ounces of vodka at 3:35 p.m. and two more ounces of vodka at 3:50 p.m. At that point, I was taking copious notes on the process. At 4:10 p.m., I registered .044 on the Intoxilyzer less than half the amount of blood alcohol content necessary to be classified as legally drunk under current Mississippi law. And I had consumed seven ounces of vodka the equivalent of seven beers in less than an hour.

At that point, it was safe to say that I had a buzz going. It was also safe to say that as the biggest man in the test group, the officers were giving me more alcohol than the rest of my compatriots because a person's size helps determine the level of intoxication that one reaches. Brenda Moore, a petite 110 pounds or so, was snockered on three glasses of wine. Had she consumed the amount of alcohol I did, she would likely have been prone for the rest of the evening.

The next hour, when I decided note-taking was for the birds, I had seven more ounces of vodka which would bring me to a grand total of 14 ounces of vodka or the equivalent of 14 beers in less than two hours.

In terms of my own personal feelings, I was drunk. Too drunk to drive, too drunk to fool anybody, too drunk to even hold a straight face if a lawman asked me if I had been drinking, and too drunk to pass either a field sobriety test or a breath test.

But the fact of the matter was that on my third Intoxilyzer test, after consuming almost a pint of vodka in less than two hours, I registered .07 on the breath test. One of the officers said: "It would be hard for a man your size to get legally drunk in two hours without turning up a bottle and draining it, but I doubt you'll pass the field sobriety test."

I doubted it, too but I did.

In front of the legislators at the reception, I took a final Intoxilyzer test and registered .08 on the breath test still legally sober to drive under Mississippi law. I also took the field sobriety test and as I recall, was the only one of our group to pass it. I walked a straight line. I held one foot off the ground and counted to 30. I even passed the eye test, where you stand still and follow the officer's moving finger.

I never registered DUI under Mississippi law but I was knee-walking, commode-hugging drunk. In Mississippi in 1994, 361 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes. 78 of them registered .09 blood alcohol content or less.

At the end of the evening, MADD gave us so-called "celebrity" drinkers two choices they would put us to bed for the night in the hotel or release us to the custody of a completely sober designated driver. The hangover the next day was excruciating. All I could think about was one Mississippi politician ...

The legislative bill to strengthen Mississippi's DUI laws and close the loopholes in the Implied Consent Law already has 66 co-sponsors in the 120-member Mississippi House. One of those sponsors is Rep. Keith Montgomery of Clinton, who was seriously injured in his own drunk-driving accident in 1994. You gotta respect Montgomery's public stand both in pleading guilty to DUI and in helping lead these reforms to passage in the House.

But in the midst of my MADD hangover, all I could think about was good old Justice Chuck McRae whose arrogance regarding his DUI fracas has unwittingly done more to advance the cause of strengthening Mississippi's DUI laws than anything MADD could have done on their own.

So one more time, Chuck, here's mud in your eye, buddy. You and more than 26,000 others were arrested for drunk driving last year in Mississippi and that's just the number who were caught.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist and editor of the Scott County Times in Forest.

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