But how much can I drink?

I quite enjoy having arguments with myself, especially if one of me has been drinking. Today the drinking me has had a couple of beers and is complaining that he can’t drive home.

“What was perfectly legal last week is suddenly illegal this week,” he is saying. “And did you notice that I pronounced ‘perfectly’ perfectly? See, that shows I’m perfectly fine to drive. I know what my limit is and I’ve always stuck to it.”

“Yes,” I agree. “This new legal limit might take some getting used to.”

“Getting used to? I can’t go shelling out for a taxi every time I have a couple of beers. It’s ridiculous. I’ll just have to not drink. This changes everything.”

He waves his Epic Pale Ale in my face. “What am I going to drink when we go to a barbeque? Fizzy? All that sugar will make me feel a whole lot worse than the two beers I would normally enjoy before driving my family safely home.”

“You can probably still drink one or two of those over the course of an evening,” I point out.

He shakes his head. “No one will tell us with certainty what we’re allowed to drink. All they can give us is a bunch of gobbledygook numbers. What does 250mcg of alcohol per litre of breath mean anyway? All I want to know is whether or not two beers is two too many.”

He is gathering momentum. Even though he is technically sober, I’ve noticed he tends to be a lot more forthright once there’s a beer in his hand. “Drinking and driving used to be completely shameful,” he continues. “A social taboo, an absolute no-no. When you saw the booze bus you knew the Police were out busting criminals, saving lives.

“But with this new lower limit our sympathies will shift. Law-abiding people will be fined. We will resent it like an unfair parking ticket.”

I decide it’s time to cut him off. “The University of Waikato has done some research showing that people who are above the new limit can’t accurately judge their level of intoxication or how well they can drive.”

“But I can say ‘perfectly’ perfectly,” he protests.

“So what? Safe driving requires cognitive skills like response times, memory and attention. The research shows those skills to be compromised once you creep above the new limit. We treat driving casually, like walking, but it’s actually a complicated activity that involves piloting metal missiles through all sorts of variable conditions. Over 22 months the New Zealand Police recorded 53 serious and fatal accidents where the drivers’ alcohol levels were between the new limit and the old limit.”

He feigns a yawn. “You’ve been reading the Ministry of Transport website again. Geek.”

I ignore him. “They have essentially identified the alcohol threshold above which you start to feel awesome and lose your objectivity. It’s a surprisingly low level. If you’re honest with yourself you know that’s true. So if you’re over the new limit you’ll be fined $200 and taken off the road for 12 hours. It’s an expensive slap on the wrist. The penalty for being over the old limit is still criminal charges. What they’ve done is to slip an infringement range of offence under the more serious limit.”

“Still doesn’t answer my question. How much can I drink?” he says.

“There’s a helpful Q&A on the Ministry of Transport’s website. They suggest a cautious buffer of two standard drinks over two hours. But most other agencies have a much clearer message: if you drink, don’t drive, and if you drive, don’t drink. That’s the culture change right there.”

I don’t often get the last word with my drinking self, but I press it home today. “Really, if it saves lives, who’s going to argue with that?”

First published in Bay of Plenty Times 5 December 2014. Reproduced with permission.