Howard Johnson on Thursday was given a field sobriety test by a Minnesota state trooper, ordered to walk a straight and narrow line with one foot in front of the other.
With his hand flailing to help him balance and feet repeatedly slipping off the line, Johnson failed miserably.
Johnson wasn’t intoxicated, but he was wearing “drunk-vision” goggles that simulate what it’s like to drive while impaired. He was among members of the media and the public who strapped on the fancy eyewear and drove pedal carts through a course lined with cones inside the Maplewood Mall to try their hand at sobriety tests like those performed by suspected drunks.
The demonstration put on by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety coincides with a drunken driving crackdown and awareness campaign that begins Friday and runs through Sept. 7.
“This was nuts,” said Johnson, 64, of Hugo, who said he sometimes has one or two drinks after a round of golf. “I know if I have more than two, I’d be over [the legal limit]. This lets you see how you really see, not how you think you see. I’m much more aware now. I think back to the 1970s and wonder how the hell we are still alive with all the crazy things we did.”
Over the past five years in Minnesota, more than 479 people have died in crashes involving a drunken driver. Labor Day weekend is the second most dangerous holiday for motorists: six DWI arrests, five crashes and three injuries are reported every hour.
Law enforcement used Thursday’s event to show that impairment begins even before a driver reaches the legal blood-alcohol concentration limit of 0.08 percent.
“Even after one drink, your judgment is altered, and after two drinks people don’t realize it,” said Dr. Michael McGonigal, a trauma surgeon at Regions Hospital in St. Paul. “Even if you haven’t reached the legal limit, it doesn’t mean you are safe.”
Leanne Press of Cottage Grove was one of the first volunteers to drive the circular course. She struggled, too, going off course once and scraping a few cones that stood as substitutes for anything from parked cars to mailboxes to light poles or children playing in the street.
“It’s scary to imagine what it would be like if this were a real car,” said Press, who added she has never driven drunk. “It was iridescent, like looking into a hologram. There were too many images to look at. It was nauseating.”
The careening pedal carts elicited many laughs from bystanders, but officials stressed the serious side.
“There is no such thing as being OK to drive,” said Donna Berger, director of the Office of Traffic Safety. “Either you are sober or you’re not.”
Police arrest an average 70 inebriated drivers a day. More than 25,258 drivers were arrested for drunken driving last year. The average blood-alcohol concentration for a driver cited with a DWI is 0.15 percent, while the average for a driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.19 percent, well above the legal limit. One in seven Minnesotans has a DWI on their record.
One in four deaths on state roads is attributed to drunken driving. In 2014, 2,040 people suffered injuries in alcohol-related crashes, according to the Department of Public Safety.
“Drunk driving is dangerous. It affects your ability to make quick decisions,” said Sgt. Joe Steiner of the Maplewood Police Department. “The message is: Bring a sober driver.”