Local News Spotlight

Bar patrons are given a chance to measure blood alcohol level, without repercussions

Updated: 2012-10-13T04:31:25Z

By CHRISTINE VENDEL and TONY RIZZO

The Kansas City Star

Mike Bristoff of Kansas City drank five beers Friday night in Waldo and didn’t feel intoxicated.

“I feel like I could put my hands on the wheel,” he said.

Then he took part in a new program by Kansas City police, called Know your Limits, where officers allow drinkers to measure their blood-alcohol content — and consider those results in comparison to their own perceived level of impairment.

He blew into the device, held by an officer, and was shocked to discover his level was .126, clearly above the state’s legal limit of .08.

“Had I not seen the numbers, I would think I would be OK to drive,” Bristoff said. “I’m just glad I’m getting a ride home.”

Bristoff was among dozens of participants who agreed to take breath tests at a table in front of Tanner’s Bar & Grill near 75th Street and Wornall Road from about 8:15 p.m. to 11 p.m. Police promised no tickets or repercussions for participants. They purposely planned to leave well before the bars closed so people wouldn’t worry that officers would follow them home.

Lisa FitzGibbon of Kansas City and her husband decided to go out Friday night in Waldo specifically to be able to partake in the program. She drank three beers, felt buzzed, but registered only .02.

“This is backfiring for me,” she said. “I used to think I couldn’t drive after two beers.”

Police Sgt. Ron Podraza explained that she could still be impaired, even if she tested below the limit. The .08 limit is merely the level at which the state doesn’t have to try to prove impairment through a driver’s actions.

Podraza said he was surprised by how well the event was received by bar customers, some of whom lined up to be tested. The first man tested, Luke Ruhl, had the highest reading at .227, nearly three times the legal limit.

He lives nearby and planned to walk home. He didn’t look drunk, but said he felt drunk and knew he would test above the limit.

“I just didn’t know what the exact number would be,” he said. “I was kind of curious.”

Police said some people think they can handle liquor better than they actually can.

“We can go out and arrest people all day long, but we want to prevent drunk driving,” Podraza said.

Kansas City Police Capt. Bob Zimmerman said he hoped the program would open some eyes and “get people thinking before the next time they get behind the wheel.”

One of those people who got their eyes opened was a member of the Kansas City Police Department’s command staff who attended a golf tournament in Scottsdale, Ariz., and took the test himself after having a few beers.

To his surprise, despite his own feeling that he was not impaired, the commander discovered that he was over the legal limit, according to Zimmerman.

He handed his car keys to his wife that night, then brought the idea back to Kansas City.

“It sounded like a pretty cool gig,” Zimmerman said.

Friday night’s event was the first time police tried the program, which Scottsdale police started in 2009.

As part of the program, officers provided a printed card with information about alcohol consumption and its effects on people of different body weights. They also provided contact information for area taxi companies, including approximate fares for common destinations — all cheaper than the cost of a DUI arrest, Podraza said.

Most bar managers in the Waldo area cooperated in allowing Friday’s effort, including Rodney Couey, the general manager at Tanner’s. He said he wanted customers to have a good time, but “you’ve got to be responsible.”

He looked at Friday’s event as a great opportunity for his customers.

“I mean, how many people have actually taken a Breathalyzer?” he said.

Though they have not yet planned any similar efforts later, Zimmerman said the department will assess how things went Friday and what kind of feedback they get from the community. Officials may look for a grant or other funding source to continue the program.

In Scottsdale, the program has become a regular part of the police department’s DUI enforcement efforts, according to department spokesman Sgt. Mark Clark.

It has been well received by both patrons and business owners, he said.

But he said it’s hard to quantify what kind of impact the program has had on preventing DUI-related crashes.

“You can’t know what hasn’t happened,” he said.

While most police DUI enforcement efforts involve looking for and stopping people who already are behind the wheel, Clark said the program provides an opportunity to give people a “wakeup” call before they take that potentially dangerous step.

“It’s safer to intervene before people get in their car and try to drive,” he said.

To reach Christine Vendel, call 816-234-4438 or send email to cvendel@kcstar.com. To reach Tony Rizzo, call 816-234-4435 or send email to trizzo@kcstar.com.

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