TAMPA — For a single day each winter, a huge swath of Tampa’s downtown and waterfront becomes a “wet zone” haven for legal, public drinking. And the public takes full advantage.
That’s why Saturday’s Seminole Hard Rock Gasparilla Pirate Fest seemed like a good place to run an experiment that would require a number of people knocking back drinks.
Our question: How drunk would the pirate partiers be according to a breathalyzer test compared to their own gut feelings? Can people who are drinking accurately perceive how drunk they are, at least according to Florida law?
What we found? Not even close.
We tested about an equal number of men and women, a total of 100 people ranging from 18 to 66. Almost all guessed their blood alcohol levels wrong.
More than 75 percent of those we surveyed were over the legal limit. And many insisted they felt fine to drive. Others had no concept of what Florida’s legal limit actually is.
Only two people guessed their level exactly. Fifty-eight people thought they were less drunk than the test showed, while 30 people guessed they were more drunk. Eighteen people who were completely sure they were under the limit tested over it.
Our question of perception versus reality was, in part, spurred by the tragic crash that killed a pedestrian on Bayshore Boulevard two weeks before the pirate parade made its way down the same street. The 31-year-old driver, who authorities said had a blood alcohol level of 0.234, said he’d only drank a double shot of Fireball Cinnamon Whisky.
About eight hours after the Tampa Bay Times conducted the breathalyzer experiment, news broke of a fatal, wrong-way crash near Tampa International Airport. A witness told police the driver was wearing Gasparilla beads.
In Florida, the legal limit to drive is .08 percent. According to the breathalyzer instruction manual, at .25 percent, the “dose-specific effects” include “need for assistance in walking. Total mental confusion.” At .30 percent, it’s “loss of consciousness.” At .40 and up, “onset of coma. Possible death.”
On the day of the Gasparilla parade, two Times reporters staked out a spot near the southwest corner of Ashley Drive and Kennedy Boulevard and set up a sign reading “Free Breathalyzer Tests.”
To conduct the test, we used a BACtrack S80 Pro, plus a bag of disposable mouthpieces. A BACtrack spokesperson said the S80 is used by hospitals, researchers and law enforcement agencies, typically to determine if someone should be brought in for further testing. The S80 is also approved as an alcohol screening device by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s DUI squad uses a more expensive device with a similar fuel cell sensor.
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We asked participants not to sip anything several minutes before they blew into the device, but getting a crowd of adults dressed like pirates to follow rules was difficult. Our sample size was small. We didn’t consider margins of error or have strict standards.
And portable breathalyzers, while still used by law enforcement, are not as accurate as drawing blood. Officers use a number of methods to gauge intoxication.
“This thing could be wrong,” we told every single person. “Please don’t drive.”
While not a rigorous scientific study, the casual test could still offer a glance at how far off perception is from reality when it comes to being sober, impaired, buzzed or completely drunk.
Gasparilla is notoriously raucous and the drinking starts early. People packed liquor in CamelBaks. Pirates poured rum from the bottle into strangers’ mouths. The beverage manager at the Tampa Yacht and Country Club told the Times last week she’d be making 90 gallons of Bloody Marys and 120 gallons of brandy Milk Punch for Gasparilla morning, expecting to run out by noon.
People started lining up to take the breathalyzer test at 1 p.m. and mostly did not stop until there were no more clean mouthpieces, just before 5 p.m. One woman said it was the most fun she’d had all day.
More than a few participants (all men) announced that they planned to “beat” their friend’s “score” on the machine. We reminded them it was not a contest. While one group took their tests, their tipsy friend laid down on the sidewalk to rest her head. Multiple people offered to take the test with beer in their mouth to see what would happen. We asked them not to.
Some wanted to see how their levels matched up to others who had the exact same amount to drink. Most seemed genuinely curious about their levels, especially since they had just begun a long night of partying.
Test takers were anonymous. But before they saw their results, we asked them to answer yes or no to the question, “Do you feel like you’re okay to drive right now?" We also asked them to guess what they thought their blood-alcohol content would be.
Seventy-seven of those tested were at or over Florida’s legal limit. Out of the 77, 35 answered yes when asked if they felt okay to drive, though the majority said they were not planning to get behind the wheel.
Out of the 35 who said they felt okay to drive, seven tested at double the legal limit or higher. Two tested at least three times the limit — a 35-year-old man who guessed his level was .05 but blew a .258, and another 35-year-old man who would only guess “definitely under the limit,” before blowing a .25.
The rest blew between 0.08 and .15, including a 24-year-old man who insisted he felt good enough to “drive a spaceship.” He tested at .10.
“I’m surprised," said Vickie Cain, 49, who at 2 p.m. tested 25 percent higher than her friend. “We’ve had the exact same amount. Two glasses of wine, and this is our third beer. And she said she was feeling it and I wasn’t.”
It’s “not really possible” for people who are drinking to accurately gauge their blood-alcohol content, said Bruce Goldberger, chief of forensic medicine and director of toxicology at the University of Florida.
“As you consume alcohol, you become more impaired, so you lose your ability to perceive your own impairment,” he said. “And people who drink and develop a high tolerance especially have no way of gauging because they’ve lost those normal cues of what intoxication is.”
For a man of around 155 pounds, one drink will add about .02 percent blood-alcohol content, he said. For a woman of around 135 pounds, it’s .03 percent per drink. But that’s assuming a drink is four ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer with an average alcohol content or one ounce of liquor. “A tall beer could be 21 ounces. And often if you’re getting cocktails at a bar, those drinks could have more than one ounce of liquor.”
Drinks can easily stack up and spike blood-alcohol content quickly, but it can only drop gradually. The body won’t metabolize alcohol faster than about .015 percent blood-alcohol content per hour.
And while some people who build a tolerance can function and present more normally than others, it doesn’t mean their blood-alcohol content is any lower.
“That won’t affect the actual level of alcohol in their bloodstream,” Goldberger said. “And it definitely doesn’t mean it’s safe for them to drive.”
The highest blood-alcohol content of anyone we tested was a 36-year-old man at .36 percent, more than four times the limit. He was too drunk to venture a guess at his level. When asked if he felt okay to drive, he said, “No, no, no, I would never," paused, then repeated the sentence three more times.
One man in his 50s refused to believe his test result, which put him at .16, and said he was going to stop drinking and come back to “fix it.” When he returned, his level tested .17. (Alcohol levels can rise even when you’ve stopped drinking.) Still frustrated, he came back an hour later and tested at .15.
The highest any woman tested was a 24-year-old who showed a .21, but guessed she was at a .13. Some of the worst guesses were a woman who thought she was at a .04, but tested .162, and a man who guessed .04 and was actually at .254.
Alayne Unterberger said she was staying at a hotel downtown and walking everywhere.
“Tampa really needs to work on public transportation so that people have an option to be responsible,” she said. “Multi-modal transportation. And people really shouldn’t be drinking on scooters.” Many of the downtown parking lots seemed full, she said, “so you know people are driving.”
Most telling may have been the confusion at the question itself. When asked to guess their blood-alcohol content, many replied:
“I have no idea where to begin."
“What’s the range?”
”What’s even legal?”
“I’m actually kind of shocked,” said Victor Guevera, 26. “I feel good. I thought I’d be a lot lower. I mean, there have been a few times in my life when I was really wasted, so I can only imagine if this is my number now, what was my number then?”
By the numbers
People tested: 100
People who tested over .08 limit: 77
People over .08 who said they felt “okay” to drive: 35
People who guessed their blood-alcohol level was lower than it was: 58
People who guessed their blood-alcohol level was higher than it was: 30
Highest BAC recorded: .36