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A hotel room beats a DUI bust

Jul 31, 2012 - By Walter Cook

I've done a lot to avoid drinking and driving over the years.

I've walked home on frigid Wyoming nights in clothes better suited for Florida, hassled sober friends for a ride home or a place to stay, ditched my car in sketchy parking lots, and slept in hotel rooms.

Nowadays, I'm no longer bothered by concerns about what to do with my car and where to bed down for the night after strong drink. My energetic, thirsty 20s have receded into the rearview mirror. I live in Los Angeles, where public transportation is always an option, and I rarely imbibe past 8 p.m.

Even if I were to drive in L.A. after a couple of drinks, the cops probably wouldn't bust me. Unless I were driving like Lindsay Lohan on the PCH or Justin Beiber on the 101, I'd be just another anonymous motorist on the road with thousands of others. In addition, the LAPD generally has better things to worry about than some borderline-buzzed buffoon on the freeway.

But I never take a chance. Not when the average DUI costs one at least $10,000, after you factor in bail, fines and fees, mandatory rehab, a multi-fold rise in the cost to insure your car and loss of work time (and, perhaps, job).

Then there's the worst-case scenario: You get drunk and kill someone. Even if you can deal with the financial ramifications and prison time, your guilty conscience might never relent.

That's why after three beers over a three-hour period, I found myself wandering the streets of Riverton at 11 p.m. on a weeknight. I had arrived from L.A. a few days before and was in town drinking beer with old friends. When the relatively tame party was over, I stared at my keys for a second, then into the dead Riverton weeknight. I knew there would be no robberies. No drive-by shootings. No traffic.

All that would be on the road -- if I were I dumb enough to drive -- would be a beer-scented guy casually driving out of town to his family's house.

Blue and red lights would surely flash behind him. His life in L.A. would then be put on hold as he worked his way through the bowels of the criminal justice system.

I knew what I had to do. I placed my keys in my pocket and walked through the eerily warm Riverton night, recalling the groceries, gas, beer, and meals I once regularly purchased at the various business I passed. I was headed for a hotel.

Having been a reporter at The Ranger for several years, I knew to avoid the some of the more notorious lodgings dominated the police reports during my tenure. As I walked, I couldn't help but think I was about to waste $100 on a room.

I wasn't intoxicated in the stereotypical sense: I wasn't staggering, I wasn't dizzy, I wasn't belligerent, I had no delusions of grandeur, my speech wasn't slurred, and I wasn't tired. Truth be told, I probably would have driven fine. Hell, I might even have been a more cautious driver out of sheer paranoia.

The ordeal reminded me of a story from the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute titled "Lower DUI Threshold More Dangerous?" In it, the author, Radley Balko, cites various statistics showing that the majority of drunk-driving-related fatalities occur when a driver's blood-alcohol content, or BAC, is at least .15, which is about two times Wyoming's legal limit. All states now have BAC limits of at least .08. California often issues DUIs for even trace amounts of alcohol.

Balko worries that because most fatalities are caused by extremely drunk drivers -- often chronic drinkers with a history of reckless behavior -- our DUI laws are placing the public at risk. He envisions

scenarios in which cops are wasting their time handcuffing infrequent drinkers who barely meet the DUI BAC threshold while heavily intoxicated drivers whiz by with impunity.

Balko notes that the DUI threshold was .10 in most states several years ago, and compares the lowering of that previous threshold to "lowering the speed limit from 55 to 50 to catch motorists who zip along at 100 miles per hour."

I'm just glad I had $100 to spend on a hotel room during my Riverton visit. Perhaps by doing so I gave some lone highway patrolman an opportunity to catch a dangerously drunk driver that night. Maybe I even saved someone's life.

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Editor's note: Fremont County native and former Ranger reporter Walter Cook is a business writer in Los Angeles.

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