There is drunken driving, then there is a level of impairment that sparks the question of how someone could even be conscious, let alone operating a motor vehicle.
At 9:30 p.m. on an April Tuesday a motorist called 911 to report a reckless driver on Route 67. Stillwater police pulled over Kevin J. Walsh, a 32-year-old from Westfield, Connecticut, who has a 2009 DWI conviction on his record.
Police said at the time of his arrest Walsh’s blood alcohol content was nearly five times the legal limit of .08 percent.
Citing the ongoing investigation, First Sgt. Ray Cordani declined to reveal Walsh’s exact BAC, but the way the officer qualified it, the reading had to be just below .40.
“It was the highest BAC the Stillwater Police Department has ever seen,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years. It’s startling he was operating a vehicle and he didn’t kill anybody or himself.”
It was just the latest mega-BAC registered in recent Capital Region DWI arrests.
Warren County sheriff’s deputies arrested a Glens Falls woman April 5 after she was allegedly observed driving erratically on the Northway. Karen L. Pincher, whom authorities said has a 2010 DWI conviction, registered a 0.36 blood alcohol content that early Sunday night — 41⁄2 times the legal limit. According to widely available medical charts, a person registering that high could have died, or at least lapsed into a coma, since it has been equated to the effects of surgical anesthesia.
“That’s the highest I’ve seen in awhile, absolutely,” Warren County Sheriff Nathan “Bud” York said. “I have see many in the [point] 2s, but that is the first one I saw in the 3s.”
There has been a striking number of recent DWI arrests in the Capital Region in which defendants have posted BACs of 0.2 or higher — in other words, at least 21⁄2 times the legal limit. Authorities stop short of calling this a trend, but it’s undeniable these numbers show at least some people are taking to the road not just drunk, but blind wasted.
To register a 0.36, an average-sized female would have to slam 12 to 14 drinks in just under four hours. Death can result in up to 50 percent of people registering a BAC of 0.31 or higher, according to medical advisories.
In recent months local authorities have made drunken-driving arrests that featured striking BAC figures. Here are some examples:
• State police arrested a Mechanicville man April 11 at a local gas station after he drove up to the same gas pumps as a trooper — twice. The second time the man’s fuel door was on the wrong side. According to authorities, 24-year-old Alexander J. Steciuk, had a BAC of 0.23 percent.
• The day before, in Colonie, Sheila E. Wray, 58, of Malta was arrested after allegedly driving a stolen car while drunk. Her recorded BAC: 0.26 percent.
• Also on April 11, troopers arrested a 57-year-old Gloversville man after a hit-and-run accident in the town of Johnstown. George Dent was charged after posting a BAC of 0.24 percent, according to authorities.
• The same day in Northampton, Justin Milnyczuk was arrested after he allegedly drove his vehicle into a ditch. The 32-year-old Northville man was charged with drunken driving after allegedly posting a 0.23 percent BAC.
So many more:
• Mikaela Beale was pulled over April 6 in Albany on a speeding stop. She was then charged with DWI after allegedly posting a 0.25 BAC.
• On April 3, 29-year-old Erica Cocca of Green Island was stopped on Route 146 in Clifton Park. Her registered BAC, according to state police: 0.23 percent.
• On Feb. 25, state police charged a Glenville woman with aggravated driving while intoxicated and other charges after she crashed her car twice, once leaving the scene of an accident, according to authorities. Kristin Pietrocarlo, 33, posted a 0.31 BAC — just under four times the legal limit — according to troopers. The accident occurred around 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning.
• Eric J. Wilson of Watervliet was arrested after allegedly recording a 0.4 BAC — five times the legal limit — following a multi-car property damage accident on Feb. 18 that occurred just before noon that Wednesday in Colonie.
• Five days earlier in Greenwich, Robert V. Johnson, 36, was arrested with a reported blood alcohol content of 0.26 percent, more than three times the legal limit.
• On Feb. 8, Julian L. Sorice, 29, of Troy, drove off the Northway in Colonie. Troopers said he had a blood alcohol content of 0.22 percent.
• On Jan. 31, Joseph A. Serapilio, 52, of Rotterdam, was arrested after an accident on Interstate 890 near Exit 9. His alleged BAC: 0.22 percent.
There are more. In New York, recording a BAC of 0.18 percent or higher results in an elevated aggravated DWI charge.
“For somebody to be up that high they had to be drinking for awhile,” said state police Tech. Sgt. Doug Paquette. “And they have a high alcohol tolerance.”
Paquette believes the recent spate of high-BAC arrests could be a statistical blip.
“Overall, I believe the [BAC] average has come down a little bit the past 10 years,” he said, citing increased awareness of and information available on the dangers of drunk driving.
According to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, the average BAC recorded in DWI arrests statewide has remained constant the past four years at 0.15 percent. The highest BACs recorded in the state over that period were 0.46 percent.
Overall, misdemeanor drunk driving arrests have declined more than 19 percent in the past decade in New York state. In 2014, the number arrested fell for the fifth year in a row, according to state figures.
The Center for Alcohol Studies and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire describes the condition of someone with a BAC of 0.2 to 0.24 percent as “Dazed and confused — Gross disorientation to time and place, increased nausea and vomiting, may need assistance to stand/walk, impervious to pain, blackout likely.”
And 0.31 and up? “Onset of coma … ”
So how are people with BACs this high driving at all? It goes back to the tolerance question.
“It’s like everyday work for them,” York said ruefully.
Dr. Robert Dachs, vice chairman of emergency services at Schenectady-based Ellis Medicine, said a 0.36 percent blood alcohol content to a heavy drinker and social drinker will not have the same effect, although he still said regardless that level of intoxication is “scary.”
“People can get tolerant,” he said. “Their motor functions will not be good, but they can do a better job than people who do not drink frequently. … They are obviously still impaired.”
Paquette agrees. “I had [arrested a driver with a BAC of] .42 once,” he said. “He was walking and talking fine.”
In December 2007 an Oregon woman, 42-year-old Terri Comer, posted what is believed to be the highest BAC ever recorded in a drunken-driving arrest in the United States: 0.72 percent. She was discovered late in the morning in her running car, which was in a snowbank.
Fifty feet away was a highway sign that read “Don’t Drink & Drive.” Comer couldn’t read it.
She was unconscious.