Got Alcohol? Then Don't Ride

  • Published
  • By Chris Hale
  • Air Force Space Command Safety Office
Riding motorcycles sober is dangerous enough. Riding under the influence is suicidal. Those who have tried it and survived (including me) are just lucky. First, consider the
natural resting position of a motorcycle is on its side. Don't believe me?

Try walking away from your bike without putting the kickstand down -- I did
that once. Then consider all of the components that have to work together in
harmony to keep your bike upright and moving forward, including the engine,
transmission, shifter and throttle coupled with the coordinated efforts of
your brain, eyes, feet, hands and torso.

Now throw in some alcohol. We know that drinking alcohol leads to poor
judgment, distorted vision, loss of coordination and slowed reflexes. That's
a lot of personal challenges while perched atop a machine that can launch
you faster than a Ferrari into the next county, or to the closest morgue.
Police officers key in on these impairments when they conduct a field
sobriety check. You may think you dance better after a few drinks, but you
certainly don't ride better, and you don't better your chances of surviving
the keen observations of that very sober police officer who is just doing
his job.

Years ago a concerned wing commander dealing with a DUI problem recognized
that people do drink and drive, and that a zero tolerance policy was
unrealistic. So, he came up with the 0-0-1-3 rule; that is, 0 underage
drinking, 0 DUIs, 1 drink per hour, and no more than 3 drinks per evening.
If you do the physiological math on this you'll find it works for most
people who choose to drink and drive. Unfortunately, it doesn't account for
an individual's tolerance level for handling the effects of alcohol and it
creates a very dangerous and false sense of security for motorcyclists.
Here's why:

When you ride under the influence, poor judgment and distorted vision get in
the way of your brain trying to solve complicated physics calculations while
considering acceleration, speed, lean angle, side slip, road surfaces,
obstacles, time and distance to decision points and evasive maneuvers should
your calculations prove wrong. Make a mistake with any one of these and your
body may slam against the pavement as you and your bike slide into the
nearest guardrail or oncoming traffic; at which point your input is no
longer relevant to the outcome.

But even if alcohol has not clouded your judgment and vision, the ability of
your body to respond to inputs from your brain is hampered by loss of
coordination and slow reflexes; basically your body betrays you. Before that
one drink you were as skilled as a fighter pilot; now you couldn't beat a
novice gamer. Is that a big deal? It is if you're trying to avoid colliding
with that knucklehead who just crossed the center line. Even if your brain
can process your next move, can your hands, feet and torso respond in time
to make a difference? Don't worry about that guy in the car -- he's in a
4,000 pound, 4-wheeled steel cage -- and you're not. With sober reflexes and
motor skills you might have had a chance.

Motorcyclists also have to deal with another physiological challenge --
dehydration. Whether you're cruising the boulevards or canyon carving in the
mountains, the moisture in your body is quickly evaporating with every mile.
Since most motorcycles don't come with cup holders and most riders don't use
camelbacks, chances are you will pull up to that biker bar dehydrated and
your first instinct will be to order a beer instead of Gatorade or water.
Studies have shown even mildly dehydrated riders who consume small amounts
of alcohol can expect to have reduced response/reaction time and decreased
ability to execute critical functions.

Many years ago I tested this theory. After a fun ride through the mountains,
my wife and I stopped for a drink ... just one. I was probably a little
dehydrated and was feeling relaxed from the buzz as we prepared to leave. As
we pulled out of the parking lot I blipped the throttle a little too
quickly, the front wheel lifted off the ground, my wife fell off the back,
my front wheel came down sideways and we both crashed to the pavement. At
less than five miles per hour we got away with just a few scrapes and
bruises - the bike wasn't so lucky. After that I adopted my own personal
1-1-0 rule that I still follow today, many wonderful miles later -- 1 drink,
1 crash, no more alcohol when I ride ... not even one!