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Before you drink and drive, test your own blood alcohol level

SEBRING - You've had one beer in one hour. Are you legally drunk?

Now you've two beers in two hours? Still okay to drive?

Three beers in two hours, but you ate chicken wings and french fries. The critical question is this: if you get in your car and drive home, are you legally impaired?

First of all, said Sebring Commander Steve Carr and Highlands County Sheriff's Major David Paeplow, the only sure way to know is not to drink and drive at all, or to designate a non-drinking driver.

But in real life, people leave bars after drinking. How can they know if they're impaired?

In the past few years, electronic devices the size of an MP3 player have been for sale on the Internet and at electronic stores like Best Buy for $30 to $150. Bed Bath & Beyond in Sebring carries two models for $20 or $30.

"They're nothing really new," Carr said. For years, previously convicted drunk drivers have been required by courts to blow into a blood alcohol concentration tube which gives an instant readout.

Bars and restaurants have provided their customers with free alcohol breath tests.

"But I don't know how accurate they are," Paeplow cautioned. "They're just a tool to give you an idea where you are."

Within minutes of drinking alcohol, blood alcohol concentration starts to rise. Unlike food, alcohol is absorbed directly through the walls of the stomach, goes into the bloodstream, and travels throughout the body and into the brain. That's why blood alcohol levels increase so quickly, according to WebMD. The amount of blood alcohol reaches its highest level about 60 minutes after drinking.

A hamburger could be a drinker's best friend. In the stomach, food can increase the amount of time it takes for the blood alcohol to reach its highest level.

The liver breaks down most of the alcohol, the rest is exhaled or passed in urine. Police tests concentrate on these two methods.

The BAC self-tester is simple to use: blow into the top for three to five seconds. The result will appear almost immediately.

"But you've got to keep in mind that because you use it and you're under the limit," Paeplow said, that the driver may still be impaired.

Impairment will be determined by a police officer with several methods: erratic driving, alcohol odor, slurred speech, and a test of whether eyes can follow hand movements. Finally, an officer may use a Breathalyzer, which is also similar to BAC devices.

What that electronic device won't test, said Carr, is how the driver will respond to all factors, such as taking pills with alcohol.

"The results can help you decide whether it is safe to drive," said the makers of one such device. It's boilerplate language used by several web sources. "This estimate of blood alcohol is not intended to represent your actual driving abilities. Your driving may be impaired even with a low BAC level, such as below 0.05."

"It's only an indication," Paeplow said. "You can't rely on that. It might be very accurate. There's no way to know."

However, both lawmen said, used correctly, the tester could give each person an idea of how his or her body responds to one beer, two or three.