Volunteers get drunk to help police train

Volunteers drank alcohol Friday morning so area police officers could learn how to spot drunken drivers.

The live sobriety testing helps officers train just before the holiday season.

“We're going to practice our drinking skills,” said “Tammy,” one of six people who participated in the live sobriety field test training for local and state police at the Hampden Township Fire Department.

PennDOT invited four women and two men of all ages and body types. Each chose to drink either beer, wine or liquor.

While some were the friends or family members of officials who put on the class, “Carol” had a unique circumstance this week.

“I am here because the government is shut down, and I am one of the lucky people who's out of work until they figure it out,” she said.

The first drink was administered around 8:30 a.m. Two instructors in the room monitored the drinking and tracked each volunteer's progress. Once an hour, each volunteer was given a breathalyzer test to check their blood-alcohol level.

By 9:45 a.m., most volunteers were halfway to the legal limit of .08 percent. Carol, after three glasses of wine, was already over the legal limit .087 percent.

She admitted she's not much of a drinker.

“I wanted to know what it felt like to be a point-08,” she said. “I've always gone by the rule of thumb if your lips are numb, don't drive. Now, I know that's true,” she said.

By 10 a.m., the room began to get a little rambunctious.

“We are drunk and we are trying to help cops,” “Heather” said.

Two dozen local and state police were separated in another room to undergo classroom-style training on how to spot drunken drivers. Pennsylvania is one of few states still allowed to use live subjects for sobriety field test training.

The six volunteers drank for four hours on an empty stomach and each had different BAC levels during each test. Tammy and Heather were “partners in crime” while doing their civic duty, but Tammy's BAC was .159, nearly twice the legal limit. Instructors stopped giving her alcohol after the second test.

But instructors liked the dichotomy between Tammy and Heather and how their bodies metabolized the same amount of alcohol.

“We had two people in here that drank the same amount,” PennDOT spokeswoman Fritizi Schreffler said. “One was very high and one was very low, so it affects everybody differently.”

The volunteers waited about 25 to 30 minutes after their last drink before heading into the classroom full of officers. Each sat in a chair that acted as a driver's seat. Officers began to grill and examine the volunteers to see if they were intoxicated.

Unknown to the officers, one of the volunteers was sober to act as a control.

Tammy, who had the highest BAC, was one of the most visibly intoxicated people when it came to the field sobriety test. Officers said they quickly noticed alcohol on her breath, that she had trouble speaking and standing, and the Nystagmus test involving eye movement was a quick tell.

Other volunteers who had a BAC of around .09 percent were more of a challenge to officers.

Joseph Bailey, a young officer with the Silver Spring Township Police Department, said the live training was a good exercise in a controlled environment.

“We have the instructors right there explaining exactly how to do things, correcting us,” he said. “We're doing everything specifically how we're trained.”

Each of the 24 officers went through the field sobriety test at least twice during the class. As for the volunteers, they were fed pizza shortly after the training and were allow to sober up or have a designated driver take them home.

Pennsylvania prohibits driving a vehicle with a blood-alcohol content of .08 percent or higher. The legal limit for commercial drivers is .04 percent, and there's zero tolerance for drivers under the age of 21.


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