Rolling Stoned: Experiments in Riding Drunk

What happens when friends let friends ride drunk. We plied our staff with liquor and them put them on motorcycles. From the April 1999 issue of Motorcycle Cruiser magazine. ** By Jamie Elvidge.**

You think that an occasional beer or two before a ride isn't a problem? You might want to consider the experiences of our staff, when they had a couple and went for a ride.

Except for the vodka and cops, it was a day like any other at Honda's Rider Education Facility in Colton, California. Imagine being hopelessly drunk and trying to execute a complex skills course with police officers on the sidelines, breathalyzers and radar guns drawn. It could have been a bad dream.

It was a scene alright, one that our Editorial Director/vodka victim, Kevin Smith, recalls "didn't take long to stop being fun." Swilling spirits with co-workers before noon isn't something we normally do around here. In fact, our corporate policy boldly states that we are not allowed to even look at a company-owned or -loaned motorcycle within eight hours of sipping anything stronger than seltzer, whether we're on the clock or not. This was an exception. In the name of science we took five subjects of varying riding and drinking experience and progressively brought them to a state of utter inebriation in order to document the effects drinking has on riding. The compelling point? Riding under the influence is the number one killer of motorcyclists. The main concern? Could the results of what we found in our tightly controlled environment be enough to make you think twice in the Real World.

The real kicker? Who was going to mop up all the puke?

Every 32 minutes someone dies on out nation's roadways in an alcohol-related accident. A person is injured in alcohol-related accidents approximately every 2 minutes.
Office of Traffic Safety

We were surprised at the real-life lessons wrought on the calm sea of Colton asphalt. When we used our imaginations it was Real World enough. It didn't matter that our cops were innocuous, or that our sterile course lacked Cora Cataract and Uncle Buck in his truck. Neither a sprinkling of gravel nor smear of oil was necessary to illustrate the point. Drinking and riding motorcycles is scary stuff.

In a California study, the Highway Patrol found that 69 percent of all at-fault motorcycle collisions happened when the rider was under the influence (excessive speed takes second place at 44-percent). Our subjects would certainly think twice about drinking and riding after our little experiment. In fact, I would go as far as to say that if our alcoholic adventures were part of legislated motorcycle training, DUI deaths would be as rare as airline disasters.

The Drunk Test

Here's how it played out. Our five subjects were Evans Brasfield, Motorcycle Cruiser's Associate Editor; John Burns, our sister magazine, Motorcyclist's, Feature Editor; Kevin Smith, Our 'steemed Editorial Director; Elisabeth Piper representing the Motorcycle Safety Foundation and Verlin Chalmers, a chemical-abuse specialist from Northern California. Evans and Elisabeth are both MSF instructors and club-level road racers. Evans considers himself a moderate drinker "I have one beer as a reward after I jog and maybe a couple more on weekends." Elisabeth occasionally sips with dinner. John is, ah, let's say, an enthusiastic drinker, "I'd say moderate but the Surgeon General would say 'heavy'." He's been licensed for eleven years and has some road racing experience. Kevin, a highly-trained rider, is an occasional drinker who "likes to have a couple on the back porch with friends." Verlin was our neophyte drinker who, despite his occupation consoling alcoholics and addicts, claimed he had (note the past tense) never been drunk. He was also as close as we got to tenderfoot in the riding department, since he's had no formal training. As a control, we collected data on Motorcycle Cruiser's Editor Art Friedman, who would ride but remain sober throughout the trials.

The stage was set at Honda of North America's Rider Education Facility south of San Bernardino. We opted to borrow one of the training bikes—a 250 Nighthawk—for safety's sake. The bulk of the testing would be conducted on the facility's serpentine skills course. It's an eighth-mile long, seven feet wide and made up of 11 corners (depending on how you count). It incorporates two stops, one entering a tight left and the other a tight right turn. To complicate matters, we had the riders apply the blinker before the first stop, and added half a second to their times if they forgot to, or if they neglected to cancel the signal once they'd turned. At the other stop, the riders were to find neutral, deploy the kickstand and run around the motorcycle before proceeding.

The course would be timed from standing start to finish and a half-second would be added to the riders' time if they touched a painted line. A whole second was added if they actually crossed over a line. The lines were to be considered homicidal. Upon crossing the finish line of the skills course the riders were instructed to make an emergency, straight-line stop so we could measure their braking ability.

The second setup was a two-part situation. The riders were to travel across the training ground at what they perceived to be 20 mph while we clocked them with a radar gun (the bike's speedo was taped over). We hoped this would be a gauge for any change in speed perception. At the end of their run they would enter a set of cones leading them toward a painted rectangle which we called the "back of the bus." At the first set of cones, which were approximately 15-feet from bus, they would receive a hand signal telling them whether they had to swerve right, left or make a panic stop to avoid immanent death. Interestingly, implanting oneself into the rear end of a slower moving vehicle is one of the most common incidents self-inflicted by intoxicated motorcyclists.

It looked like a joy ride. Motorists reported seeing the bike weaving dangerously in and out of traffic while the passenger gleefully slapped at the rearview mirrors of the vehicles they sped passed. She was probably laughing when the bike hit the back of the semi. The rider's face left an impression in the metal door. Both were dead at the scene. Neither was wearing a helmet. The medical examiner logged in the rider's BAC at a shocking .35. He shouldn't have been able to walk, much less ride a motorcycle.
—One of the 900 motorcycle accidents investigated in the University of Southern California's "Hurt Report"

It's been documented through investigation of motorcycle accidents that riders who have been drinking are much less likely to wear helmets when helmet use is optional, just as car drivers are less likely to buckle up. Stupidity does snowball sometimes, you know. One study from the University of Washington cites that "The intoxicated cyclists were at fault for the accident 50-percent more often than the non-intoxicated cyclists and were found to wear helmets one third as frequently."

Our riders were dressed to kill instead—full protective garb from head to toe. Under the watchful eye of motorcycle safety guru, Peter Fassnatch, and California Highway Patrol Officer, Dan Medillion, we let them out on the skills course several times while they were still sober to get a baseline time and record their best braking distance. They also did the 20-mph shoot and the back-of-the-bus until we felt we had their average perception and reaction scores. The testosterone was flowing long before the alcohol. Times were key. Only Elisabeth, shielded by estrogen, seemed totally unaffected by the pre-chemical competition.

It was time to break the seal on the Stoli and hope that "bottom's up" would only pertain to cups. We had chosen Vodka as the drink of choice for several reasons. We knew the riders would have to ingest a goodish amount of alcohol in a short period of time, and the sheer volume of beer needed would be physically uncomfortable...not to mention the potty breaks. Vodka seemed like a lighter; cleaner alternative that would be easier on the system and more likely to stay put. Ha!

We also knew that a properly mixed drink has exactly the same effect as one 12-ounce beer or a 5-ounce glass of wine. It's amazing how many people resist that fact and insist that beer or wine produces a different, somehow more manageable effect. A beer is a glass of wine is a mixed drink. They all have the same amount of alcohol and therefore the same physiological effect. You might feel more civilized when you drink wine or more brutish when you drink beer, but it's a fantasy.

Nowhere in our research was this denial more apparent than in a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which conducted ten focus groups throughout the U.S. to asses the attitudes of motorcyclists in regard to drinking and riding. A participant from Denver stated, "I think a shot is comparable to maybe three beers." Ding. A rider from San Diego says "It's common sense that whiskey is a fighting drink, beer is pretty mellow and wine is fine." Dong.

One Drink Helps?

We started each tester off with a double...that's about 2.5 ounces of the hard stuff. Since all had only had a light breakfast four or more hours before, we waited only about 15 minutes for the stuff to fully sink into their stomach linings then sent them one-by-one to Officer Medillion and the breathalyzer. Food, by the way, doesn't lessen the intensity of your buzz, it just deters it. The blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) readings were low and very legal, just as you'd expect after two drinks. John blew a .032; Kevin .023; Elizabeth .043; Verlin .032 and Evans .033. And off they went to ride in that order.

Things were notably different on the course. The mood had heightened and so had the competitive spirit. Almost everyone rode the track faster than they had sober. John, Elisabeth and Verlin were all much smoother and more effectively communicating with the bike. Elisabeth had seemed especially hesitant on the course and this was gone with the first drink. Everyone's braking distances were improved.

Were we proving something here? Were we destined to make MADD mad? Does a drink or two really make you a better rider? A lot of people think so, including our own John Burns, who will probably have something to that effect printed on his headstone.

Here's what the rest of us, including a battery of experts, think might be going on: You just may perform "better" after a couple of drinks...and you definitely will perceive that you are performing better. Something to consider however, is just why your performance is up. Your inhibitions are down, right? But let's equate inhibition to caution, because by definition it means restraint. After a couple of drinks you feel more confident because you're acting with less caution. It's not a true confidence though. True confidence comes with skill. The problem with false confidence and motorcycle riding is that you probably lack the skill to back up the newfound faith in your ability. You carry caution with you for a reason. It may not be that important on the dance floor, you just end up looking like a fool. Riders who get profoundly better (smoother/faster) are at the greatest risk for disaster at low BAC levels.

If I don't have a drink before I get on my bike, I'm uncomfortable, because it is a lot of power underneath me and you definitely have to know what you're doing to ride this particular motorcycle, so I need a drink to help me go out there and ride.
—Miami NHSTA Focus Group Participant.

It follows then that Evans didn't show an improved performance on the course after that first drink. He did have inflated aggression "I didn't care if I crashed," he said. "My biggest fear was crashing sober." And he took time adjustments for forgetting to cancel his turn signal and crossing over a line. Perhaps being a veteran MSF chief instructor, daily commuter and weekend roadracer adds up to a skill (or confidence) level that negates any drop in inhibitions that would reflect in a positive way. The problem in this situation could be that in the alcohol-induced euphoria he could push too hard. If the line he'd hit had been a curb, his aggression might have done him in.

Kevin was smooth and rode effectively but he was also our first rider to show signs of tunnel vision. He was sitting closer to the tank, his head was lower and his eyes had dropped to the course immediately in front of him. He said he already felt nervous. "I wouldn't ride this way. I'm totally concentrating on getting around the track."

People who've had a few drinks perform very well in single-task testing. Tell them to count the number of times a light blinks and press a button when it reaches a predetermined number and they can do it all day. Add a task to the monitoring like, say, do the same thing but also hit the button if you see an additional light flash in the periphery and they get lost. Folks who've been drinking—even a little—tend to miss the additional stimulus, or if they do see it, they lose track of counting the primary light.

Motorcycle riding is not so simple. To be effective you need to split your attention between operating and monitoring the controls, regulating speed, assessing immediate traffic situations and signals and staying on the course to your destination. If that's not complex enough, you need to be able to assimilate peripheral inputs along the way like road signs, cross traffic and pedestrians. And of course to truly ride well, you must have enough gray matter left in the jar to react to the unexpected. When you drink, your brain is less able to focus on a broad spectrum of actions and reactions.

"An intoxicated person's pupil will slow down and tends to stay fixed longer on object," explains Jim Ouellet, author of a USC research paper which investigated alcohol involvement in motorcycle accidents. "In effect, it takes longer to makes sense of the things you're looking at. So you can process less information about the things going on around you." Because a drunk can't "keep all the balls in the air" he tends to block out the peripheral fields. It's this physiological "tunnel-vision" factor that helps experts explain why the classic fatal accident for drinking motorcyclists involves a long straightaway and a corner.

It's midnight to 2:30 a.m. and they're done drinking and going to ride home. The biggest problem with these guys is not turning when the road does. They literally go along for 5, 10, 20 minutes and just ride straight off the road. They fail to negotiate the turn, run off to the outside of the corner and hit some fixed object...a pole, tree, park bench, whatever...
—Dave Thom, Head Protection Research Laboratory

The most common fatal crash for a sober rider occurs during daylight hours at low speeds (average 33.3 mph) and involves another vehicle. It's the legendary left-hand turn that takes out the tea totalers. The crash that kills a rider who's been drinking is a solo affair that involves a higher median speed (41.3-mph). The odds are pretty clear: drink enough, often enough and you're just gonna lose it some night...probably in the wee hours, all alone.

When we moved to the speed-perception shoot all the riders selected cruising speeds below the imposed 20-mph, perhaps in anticipation of the upcoming emergency maneuver. Even at this early stage only three out of five riders would have avoided contact with the back-of-the-bus.

Have Another Round

It took us almost an hour to get to our next beverage break where we had everyone throw back a single (1.25-ounce) mixed drink. Considering that the magic number for BAC burn off is .015-percent per hour it's no wonder the second round failed to get the riders much over their previous levels. The guys all remained in the .03s, but Elisabeth did skip from a .043 up to a .063. Women have a slightly different absorption rate than men due to a higher fat-to-muscle ratio. Elisabeth is also considerably lighter than the men are so therefore carries less body fluids and would always have a higher BAC reading.

Back on the track we saw the same behaviors only exaggerated. Verlin was magically smooth and more aggressive; it was his best run yet. "I seemed to do better because I was more relaxed," he wrote. "But I would never ride this way because of false confidence." Elisabeth, despite her high BAC reading was riding with eerie smoothness but her run took her a full minute to complete. She wrote that she was "very focused on path of travel and mechanics of exercise and had no time to be aware of anything else." Evans, on the other hand, was more confident and aggressive, but it translated to jerkiness as he slammed the bike through the turns. His time didn't improve despite his manhandling of the machine and again he lost points for sloppiness.

It should be noted that during this time Art had been riding the course sober and, much to the consternation of his consuming compatriots, had greatly improved his time and efficiency. His total time on this third recorded run was 43.91 seconds compared to his best baseline of 46 seconds. So keep in mind that if the other guys were sober, they too would be improving with each run instead of worsening. Their scores could be inverted if you considered where they'd be if they weren't drinking.

At this point we decided to get serious, or at least the drinkers decided to get serious about their drinking. While the test controllers debated about how to dose the next round, the subjects took the liberty of pouring themselves a cool one. So much for sterile statistics on quantity of consumption. The monkeys had found the lever.

Twenty minutes later we were back trackside and John blew a .10. This is an extreme jump from .033, so we know that John slipped himself a Mickey. He was now officially drunk in every state and his drinking buddies cheered vigorously. He did a smooth, quick run, although he touched the line once and crossed completely over another one. So they were just painted lines, right? Not really. They were to be treated like curbs or ditches. Yeah, it's easy to walk on a 2x4 lying on the ground and imagine it's a balance beam. But just because it's on the ground doesn't mean you're not trying to the best of your ability to stay on it.

Everyone was getting much louder now and the competition factor was thick. After his run, John argued quite aggressively with the officials about the scoring. He was acting seriously paranoid and insisted we were "out to get me" by adjusting his time for mistakes he didn't make. He also said he knew we were giving him his signal late in the emergency maneuver so he'd look bad. Lucky for John his sense of humor surfaced, and the CHP officer didn't book him when he formally surrendered.

When you're sober it's easier to separate emotions from actions. When you're out there on the bike emotions like anger show up in your riding as aggression. It may be speed, exaggerated acceleration and shifting, oversteering or overbraking. It sure ain't smoothness.

I can be in a good mood and go out and pound 15 beers and have no problem at all. I can go out and pound 15 beers in a bad mood, and I'm going to be in jail. There's no medium ground.
—Chicago NHSTA Focus Group Participant

Gunning for the Sober Guy

Evans was at a .065 now and his aggression was peaking. He's wanted to go faster to beat the time of his nemesis, Art. Art was still sober, of course, and Evans was suffering alcohol-induced optimism. Officer Medillion remembered later, "What I saw was that even the first drink will have an effect on you. Instead of being cautious, they were less cautious. It's scary to think that these guys are professional riders, and they know their limits. But as soon as they had that first drink, it was, 'Hey. You know what? I'm feelin' loose now. I'm going to start going for it a little bit more.'" Despite great intent, Evans didn't come near Art's time. Not only did he turn his slowest time yet, he also crossed and touched lines and didn't apply his blinker at all.

Kevin, at .056, continued to crawl into his tunnel of vision and off-color remarks were made from the sidelines regarding his new relationship with the bike. He was practically sitting on the tank now and hunkered down over the bars like a gargoyle. He turned his slowest time yet, crossed a line and failed to employ his blinker. On completion he said he was trying hard not to tunnel vision but felt like he could only think of one thing at a time. He also noticed that simultaneously he felt more abandon and had no fear of falling. Scary as he felt and performed, he was still legal to ride.

At that time all of our riders fell into the second stage of alcohol intoxication (.03 to .12) which includes the pleasantries of mild euphoria, increased self-confidence, sociability and talkativeness, but also comes with some less appealing qualities. There's diminution of attention, judgement and control, the beginning of sensory-motor impairment and loss of efficiency in finer performance tests. Even before anyone reached the springboard of legality at .08, we were all amazed (with the exception of Officer Medellion perhaps) at how hammered everyone was. Verlin was also still very legal at .04, yet his newly acquired smoothness had vanished. He said he felt loose, but his riding was jerky. He was less precise with the controls and had trouble locating the sidestand. "I feel like I could make stupid mistakes and be in a world of hurt in a hurry."

Elisabeth on the other hand was definitely fodder for the files at .123, and it was clear she should be napping instead of riding a motorcycle. She giggled a lot and rode with great deliberation, finishing the course with two line touches and no blinker in 66.31 seconds. "It's the weirdest feeling," she said. "It feels like I'm doing alright but I know I'm not." She also noted that she couldn't focus on anything but her immediate path of travel.

Taking the Bus from Bad to Worse

Things started to get pretty silly at this point. Verlin said he spilled the bottle of grapefruit juice because the table moved in the wind. (There was no wind.) Kevin kept poking me in the arm while he tried to explain that he had something meaningful to say but couldn't remember the meaning of what he was saying. Evans and John were locked in a drunken embrace until John decided to come tell me he knew I was still out to get him, then he decided to grab my butt for good measure. The group was certainly getting on the bus from bad to worse. I caught Evans drinking from the two-liter bottle of Stoli...a photo opportunity gone awry, he said.

Drinking negates caution with everything—including how much you drink. It was curious to watch the guys mix drinks (and not just because they were seated at Art's kid's portable picnic table). They came into this test knowing it was to be very controlled and assuming they would only ingest a prescribed amount of alcohol. After two drinks they were mixing bigger drinks, after three, using less to cut them and finally swigging straight from the bottle. It says a lot about intentions, and that you need to expect you won't be reasoning the same way you did before you started drinking.

One of the biggest circumstances DUI riders cite is that they had a few too many. You don't eat a few too many hot dogs, do you? Alcohol has a voice that mimics your own. "You're fine," it says. "And you'll feel even better if you have another. You can still ride, just ride slow. And hey, that redhead sure is cute...wonder why you didn't notice her before. And look, she wants you..."

You get a little bolder after a couple of beers.
—Denver NHSTA Focus Group Participant

John checked in on the breathalyzer at .132. His pace around the course was slowing, and he touched two lines and crossed a third. Kevin, at .104 explained "John had to go first, and I am after John," then added, "I just want to lie down but will continue for the sake of science. I have no business being on a bike." He took an incredibly long time getting ready then stalled the bike. He dabbed his foot, touched three lines, crossed two and almost fell down walking around the bike.

Elisabeth was giggling again. She skipped this round of drinks but was still quite drunk. She had trouble buckling her helmet and then ignored the first stop. She couldn't find neutral at the second stop and was riding so slowly she was all but losing the gyroscopic effect. Before bringing the bike in, she ran off the course in a big way. Verlin was our only rider still below point one and, when he approached the second stop, stalled the bike with premature sidestand deployment and when he got back on the bike couldn't figure out why it wouldn't start until he remembered the sidestand was still down. Evans laughed hysterically on his run as he threaded his way off and back on the course five times. He said we were moving the cones.

Our five subjects were so hammered now it was amazing that they could even get around the track. I don't think they could have walked it. An important point to keep in mind is that all of them ride so much it's almost reflex. Even our "novice," Verlin, has been riding for 37 years, has ridden cross-country twice and puts about 17,000 miles on his Valkyrie each year. A study of disc jockeys and the effects of alcohol on their performance showed that even when they couldn't stand up they could still speak clearly.

It's also true that short-term concentration is much more obtainable than long-term concentration when you're snookered. You can probably get it together for a few miles when there's a police car following you, but when you're droning down the freeway, it's another story. When the guys got on the bike for their tests they flicked an "on" switch. They all felt their heads cleared on the bike then fogged again once they walked away.

Last Call, First Crash

It was definitely going to be the last call. Our five subjects were now fully into the third stage of intoxication (.09 to .25). The euphoric effects are gone at this stage and instead, there's emotional instability and loss of critical judgement, impairment of perception, memory and comprehension, decreased sensatory response and increased reaction time, sensory-motor incoordination, impaired balance and reduced visual acuity, night vision, peripheral vision and glare recovery. Oh, yeah, and vomiting.

John actually found the bike after blowing a shocking .247 on the breathalyzer. He couldn't find the start line though and we had to tell him where it was three times. He said, "Everybody has been drinking as I have forever," and took off. He made it through the course with one line touch, one cross, no blinker and then he crashed the bike by over-braking at the end. All the other drunks high-fived as he rolled out from under it. We could hear Kevin (.094) on the course chanting "I really don't want to do this...I don't like this at all...I'm not sure I can do this...."

You're not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on.
—Dean Martin

Verlin took almost a minute to run the course but somehow remembered to turn his blinker on and off. At .161, Evans didn't know which way to turn, much less signal and ran off the track mid-course, bringing the bike to a shrieking stop. "This is stupid," he yelled, "I'm going to crash." He later said that his band of focus was so narrow he was worried he was going to run into the fence or the crowd. "An eighteen-wheeler could've been headed for me and I wouldn't have known."

Elisabeth, who stopped drinking three rounds ago, had managed to burn her blood alcohol concentration back down to legal at .066. Interestingly, she was riding more poorly than she had at .123. When we asked the experts about this they explained that it made sense because alcohol was a biphasic chemical. The first phase stimulates the central nervous system and the second stage depresses it. The stimulation had run it course and left her run down.

Still Dangerous When "Sober"

Recent studies have suggested that even when you're BAC has returned to .00 your level of deterioration is still palpable. It takes a while to actually feel sober even though you're sober on the meter. This is troubling since someone can sit at the bar for a couple of hours waiting for the clock to say they're good to go then proceed to perform worse than when drunk. Watching Elisabeth proved this. She had her worst run of the day, touching three lines, crossing one and forgetting the blinker entirely. She finished after a long 75 seconds, remarking that she felt more under the influence now than she had before. "I'm amazed at how little alcohol it takes to feel this drunk."

On the speed-perception drill, judgement remained about the same. No one went exactly 20 mph and only Kevin went over. The funny thing was, not one of them noticed the bright yellow tape was no longer affixed to the speedo, so they could have simply measured their speeds. John didn't do this last emergency drill because he'd simply zoned out. Three out of the four remaining riders failed to negotiate the back-of-the-bus.

A lot of people believe that if you're drunk you have a greater chance of avoiding injury in a crash. The myth is that you're more relaxed and able to roll with the punches. The reality is quiet the opposite extreme. According the American Association for Automotive Medicine, which detailed data from over 1,000,000 crashes, the drinking driver is more likely to suffer serious injury or death compared to the non-drinking driver. "In any given crash, alcohol increases the vulnerability to injury."

Another paper from the University of Washington found while investigating motorcycle accidents where head injuries were involved, "The protective affect of helmet use was lost on the intoxicated group, who sustained head injuries twice as frequently. The mortality following the critical head injury was twice as high among intoxicated patients (80-percent vs. 43-percent)".

A USC-released study which investigated 900 motorcycle accidents in the Los Angeles area also found you are much more likely to die from your injuries when you've been drinking, helmet or not. Four-percent of the non-drinking riders were killed as opposed to 21-percent of those who had been drinking. "The difference is statistically significant. Drinking riders who crashed were about 5.6 times as likely to die as non-drinking motorcyclists involved in an accident."

Luckily the only get-off besides John's braking crash we witnessed was the collapse of the portable picnic table. Somehow Evans and Verlin ended up handcuffed together while Kevin searched for patterns in the pavement and John kicked off the now-infamous Barf-O-Rama. Elisabeth remained composed and quietly endured.

An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools.
—Ernest Hemingway

The instant the drills were over the group had fallen apart. They took a quick blow on the breathalyzer to reveal their ending BAC levels, and all had soared well above point one. As they stumbled away it was hard to believe that moments before they had been riding a motorcycle. It remains harder to fathom that people are riding the roads of the Real World right now in the same condition.

Why Is Booze Tangled Up with Bikes?

It's easy to say "Don't drink and ride." It's also easy to say, "Eat your vegetables" when it's not your plate of spinach. Motorcycling is a recreational activity that, for many riders, is tangled with another recreational activity: drinking. "Beer for bikers is like wine in France," said a Miami rider. "You don't drink water, you drink beer." And it's a truth. How many group rides have you been on that were punctuated with alcohol? Ever notice how all the stopping places serve beer? And who's to say that a drink or two doesn't enhance the experience anyway? We can tell you it ups your odds of having an accident, but if you don't surpass your limit, aren't those low-end odds, perhaps, justifiable?

And what about your limit? Knowing your limit is of paramount importance, and proportionate ambiguity. It varies wildly from one individual to the next and depends more on temperament and tolerance than weight. Unfortunately there is no formula, and it can vary from day to day. There's also the disturbing fact that, once you've had a drink, your interpretation of your limit is very likely to change...and it won't fall on the conservative side.

All of our riders thought they were performing better than they were during the tests. Judgement of their own abilities was skewed almost immediately, even though this was a group very in tune with their skill levels.

So what do you do if you're out there and realize you've had too many? Coffee, cold water, exercise and eating are all a waste of time. And although time is the only thing that will elminate the effects of alcohol, it's been proven that you're still impaired long after the last call. (Our riders still felt effected the next day and most opted to stay home.) A ride home with a designated driver (which we required all our testers to take) is the next best thing to abstinence.

If you're inclined to have a couple of drinks because it heightens your experience or fortifies your performance, there are other ways to get the same feeling without the hangover. A shot of rider education like the MSF's Advanced RiderCourse or a trackside workshop will raise your skill level so you can own that confidence and not borrow it from a bottle.

And for those of you who've gotten through all this and still believe it's okay to drink and ride? A Highway Patrol Officer from San Diego sums it up, "There's a certain Darwinian process that gets rid of the real bad riders real quick."

Address comments to

1. Suspension of license mandatory in half of states; 15 days to 1 year
2. Fine mandatory in half of states; $150 to $10,000
3. Jail sentence mandatory in one-third of states; 1 to 5 days
4. Increased insurance rates $500 plus per year
5. Lawyer and court fees
6. Lost work time
7. Alcohol-education program attendance
8. Tow/impound of bike

1. Giving full attention to the motorcycle
- Awareness
- Restraint
- Concentration
- Multi-tasking

2. Searching the environment
- Often fails to notice what's going on in the distance

3. Identifying possible hazards
- Ability to see moving objects
- Ability to see clearly at night/handle glare from headlights (2 to 3 drinks cuts night vision by about 1/3)

4. Decision skills
- How fast to ride
- Whether to pass or yield
- Whether to change lanes
- How much room between vehicles
- Whether to ride at all

5. Reaction time
- Make choices/act quickly
- Memory

6. Coordination and balance
- Riding requires high degree of eye/hand/foot coordination

For more information on safe-riding equipment, strategies, techniques and skills, see the Street Survival section of

The American Motorcyclist Association and the NHTSA have created the Ride Straight site to help combat riding under the influence.

Photography by Dean Groover.
The Minnesota Motorcycle Safety program has come up with some excellent campaigns targeting drunk riding. For information see:
The skills course we used at Honda's Rider Education Facility. It's easy enough to do cleanly when you are sober.
The start of a run. While our non-drinking control rider got faster every run all day long, the drinking riders at first got faster but sloppier, then got slower and dangerous.
What you drink doesn't much matter.
Evans on the course.
Elisabeth during the stop-and-circle manuver.
All were smiling at that first drink...
And the hilarity increased, at least at first.
Then it began to go over the top.
But soon the laughter stopped...
Our drunks looked dour, or heaved over the fence.
At least they didn't leave in handcuffs.
The thumb presumably indicates the change in Evans' BAC.
Burns gets sloppy on the course.
Our favorite of the Minnesota Motorcycle Safety anti-drink-and-ride posters.
Once the test subjects started "dosing" themselves, the only way to track what they'd consumed was with official CHP measuring devices.
More Minnesota posters.
A reminder to passengers.
John, our most serious drinker, still thought he could handle his liquor.
Just standing up to get your BAC measured was a trial by mid afternoon.
An unfortunately common sight. Too many riders think bikes are good way to get to and fron bars.
Our riders, once lubricated, thought they were doing better that they were and even argued that they had not done what others observed. Here Kevin crosses the line.