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Drinking and not really driving

Editor's note: This column originally ran in 2008.

When I was in college, I was always the designated driver. That would be a noble thing, except I had consumed just as much alcohol as everyone else. But my friends felt I offered the best chance of getting us back to campus alive, and that I wouldn't be distracted by all the yodeling, power-belching, puking out windows, etc.

I'm not an irresponsible idiot anymore. I haven't driven juiced since my college years, and never will again. But I haven't lost the swagger, the feeling that if I absolutely had to do it — say, to rescue a baby from homicidal Nazi cannibals on motorcycles — I would be fine. That's why, when I learned about the high-tech driving simulator at George Washington University, I knew what I had to do in the interests of scientific inquiry. I had to get droolingly drunk on an expense account.

The simulator is run by the university's Center for Intelligent Systems Research under the direction of Azim Eskandarian. Professor Eskandarian's lab mostly tests drowsy drivers, to develop car safety features that will recognize and correct dangerous patterns of behavior. Professor Eskandarian had never overseen a drunk test before, but seemed happy to try; I'm guessing that watching people snooze at the wheel is nowhere near as entertaining as what he figured would happen to me.

I arrived with two bottles of wine. The first, a 2003 French pinot noir, cost $83; the salesman proudly informed me it had "lovely cherry and cassis scents with earth notes and soft tannins." And he didn't shut up until I asked how it would "go down slugged straight from the bottle." My second bottle was a $4.50 Argentinian cabernet; in choosing this, I was extrapolating from the well-established scientific principle that by the third beer, everything is Pabst.

The simulator is like an enormous video game. You sit in a full-size Buick Regal and drive normally, using brake, accelerator and steering wheel, reacting to road conditions on a huge, wraparound screen. You drive on city streets, mountain roads and country lanes, your performance monitored by computer. Each test lasts about 20 minutes.

Driving sober, I did swell. Then I drank a third of a bottle of the pinot — I would describe it as "impetuously insouciant" — and tried again. How'd I do, professor?

"You drove at higher speed, but showed better handling of the car and held the lane well. There were no incidents."

You betchum! This was easy. So I drained the pinot in the next five minutes — I'd describe it as "extremely red" — and sauntered back into the Buick. At this point, according to the regulations in most states, I was a DUI waiting to happen.

Inside the car, things were going good. Goodly. The only thing I noticed was that I seemed to be humming a tune, In the Year 2525, which was annoying, but nothing like guys puking out the window. I did great. Right, doc?

"You ran a red light and almost hit a pedestrian."

Okay, sure. But otherwise ...

"You managed to keep the car in lane, but there were many deviations from the center line. You drove much faster. There were no crashes."

Doc said it himself! No crashes! I drank half of the second bottle, which I would describe as "definitely wet," then strode manfully into the car. For some reason, I don't remember all that much of the last two sessions except that, when I got out, I felt I hadn't done all that badly. Considering. I did have to close one eye to see that Professor Eskandarian had only one head.

"You ran off the road after a curve. You crashed into a bus. You killed a pedestrian. You had a frontal collision with a car driving in the opposite direction in the other lane. You killed a bicyclist. As the test ended, you were beginning a dangerous maneuver that might have caused a rollover if it had continued."

Now I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that when completely zitfaced, I was a dangerous driver. But that's not what I was thinking. I felt I had performed pretty well, but that the machine had malfunctioned, registering errors where there were none. I remember writing these indignant impressions right into my notebook, which I am looking at right now.

It says, distinctly: "Lat plobey col pobber, ferl engs."

© 2013 Washington Post Writers Group

Drinking and not really driving 07/13/13 [Last modified: Monday, July 15, 2013 7:11pm]

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