Thursday, December 24, 2009

Me vs. breathalyzer: A tale of suspense and penguins

I've been away from the blog because I was on vacation in New Zealand and unable to reach a computer. My most memorable event wasn't our 5-day, 72 km hike or walking on a glacier or zipping through river rapids with only a boogie board.

A week ago I drove from Queenstown to Dunedin after a morning spent canyoning (working through a river canyon by abseiling, ziplining, swimming, jumping, etc.), which was a blast. We planned to see albatross and penguins in their natural habitat on the Otago peninsula. But we were hungry, and it was already evening.

We went to a restaurant/bar on the Octagon, where I ordered venison tenderloin. Naturally, I wanted a local Central Otago Pinot Noir to go with it. My wife ordered crispy skin salmon, also a good Pinot dish.

The bar had several interesting Pinots by the glass, and their bottle markup was too high, so we ended up having 3 glasses of Pinot, of which I drank about 2 1/2.

While waiting for our food, I leafed through Lonely Planet and realized the best time to see blue penguins would be at dusk, still more than an hour away. I didn't want to rush my wife's meal, so while I ate hurriedly, I said nothing. But as soon as she finished, I said, "Let's go!"

We raced to the rental car, jumped in and headed off. Less than five minutes later, I encountered a DUI checkpoint. New Zealand police were pulling everyone over to be breathalyzed.

My wife began beseeching God and Buddha for assistance while I considered a rapid U-turn. But several motorcycle cops there were probably just waiting for such an opportunity. So I decided to take my chances.

I thought, what happens if you get a DUI in a foreign country? Can it affect your driving record at home? Will they keep me in jail until deporting me? Will I have to go back and face charges later? And what is the legal blood alcohol level here anyway? My wife just kept praying.

Soon it was my turn, and the cop leaned into the window, explaining, "We're testing everyone for alcohol tonight. Please count slowly from 1 to 5 into the breathalyzer."

I told myself, "Just act calm," but I could hear my heart in my ears. I tried to count distinctly without expelling much air, not easy to do when you're almost hyperventilating.

The cop pulled the machine away. If there was a moment when I lost my carefully cultivated cool, this was it -- I leaned out to watch the display, which read, "Calculating … calculating …"

Could my wife drive the rental car back to the hotel? No, she's more of a lightweight than me. It would be towed, so we'd have that expense as well.

"Calculating … calculating …"

Hopefully she could bail me out tonight. Would I need a lawyer? Our flight was in how many days, 4? Would I be able to leave?

The screen cleared for a split-second, then it read:


Wow. I almost cracked, "Hey, that thing's broken!" but fortunately I wasn't intoxicated or stupid enough to do so. The officer thanked me and we drove off, waiting to laugh for a polite 100 meters or so.

We did see blue penguins, no more than a couple of meters from us. But as exciting as that was, it will never be the highlight of that evening for me.

Turns out the legal intoxication limit for New Zealand is 0.05. Central Otago Pinot Noir is not Burgundy -- most are about 14% alcohol. Using an Internet BAL calculator, that's exactly what I came up with for my estimated level. I don't think I was intoxicated; I wouldn't drive if I thought I was intoxicated. But there's no way that machine should have read NO ALCOHOL.

Thank you, God. And Buddha.

Merry Christmas to all. I wish you as much good fortune as I had that night.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing!! And what a gorgeous photo.

Dennis S said...

I enjoyed lots of Pinots and Penguins myself recently in New Zealand. Fortunately had a son to chauffeur as needed, so didn't need to worry about imbibment levels. Of course all those one-lane bridges on the main highways are a pretty strong deterrent to overindulgence in themselves!

W. Blake Gray said...

Oh man, the one-lane bridges ... it's amazing how many of them you see on the national highways, especially on the west coast.

I believe that this one evening penguin exhibition may have been the only time I had even a glass of wine before jumping in the car. So I guess I have to credit the NZ police with being on the ball, even if their breathalyzer was broken :)

truck rental said...

OH! New-Zealand is AMAZING! I have been there twice so far and stiil- it's not enough! Great post- loved the comments on the "what if" :)