Getting a fare was a sure thing for more than a dozen taxicabs lined up outside the DUI Task Force’s staging area in central Mesa on a Friday night earlier this month.
By midnight — early in terms of busting drunken drivers during the holidays — law enforcement officers had processed more than 30 motorists on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol in East Valley communities. After undergoing sobriety tests, being handcuffed, fingerprinted and assigned a court date, the drivers were free to go, but not free to drive.
"It’s sad, really," Scottsdale police officer Dave Larson said, gesturing toward the taxicabs. "None of these people are driving home tonight. So what could have just been a $40 cab drive home is going to turn into thousands of dollars in legal fees."
So, why didn’t the drivers just call a cab to get them home in the first place, instead of attempting to drive?
It may have something to do with the way alcohol affects the brain, experts say.
Dr. Michael Sucher, addiction medicine consultant for the Arizona Medical Board, said that although alcohol is eventually absorbed by just about every cell in the body, it first goes straight to the frontal lobes — the section of the brain that controls judgment and decision-making.
Wilkie A. Wilson, a professor and researcher at Duke University Medical Center and author of "Buzzed: The Straight Facts About the Most Abused Drugs," calls the frontal lobes the " ‘oops’ detector."
"It’s the part of the brain that tells us, ‘Oops, I just said something stupid,’ or ‘Oops, I am drinking too much,’ or even more seriously, ‘Oops I just drove over something,’ " he said.
Alan Haywood, an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer who is working with the Valley’s DUI Task Force this month, said alcohol is a central nervous system depressant and affects fine motor skills — which can be detected when people drink and drive.
"What we are looking for is an ability to stay off the white lines, speeding up and slowing down — all of these are indications someone doesn’t have control of their fine motor skills and may be intoxicated," he said as he patrolled U.S. 60 from the Val Vista Drive exit to Mesa Drive.
Haywood said he’s not against drinking, but rather he’s against people driving home afterward.
He also said he realizes that it’s not easy for people to make the decision to not drive after they’ve had a few.
"The decision that you aren’t going to drive needs to be made before you even take a sip," he said as he acknowledged that the majority of people he arrests for DUI aren’t hardened criminals, but "usually people who go to work and pay taxes, but just made a bad decision."
The reason Haywood said he believes people need to make arrangements for how they are going to get home prior to drinking is because "of the amount of variables that go into how alcohol is going to affect a particular person."
Factors such as gender, weight, whether there is food in the stomach, state of mind and age can play a part in how someone is affected by alcohol.
For example, women tend to have more body fat so they store alcohol longer in the body and tend to stay intoxicated longer, Wilson said.
Regardless, Haywood said, people who drink then drive need to be prosecuted.
"People don’t look at it as a serious crime, but the reality is someone can lose a life," he said. "The number of fatalities caused by drinking while under the influence was somewhere around 450 in Arizona for 2003 — if there were that many murders, people would be outraged."