Responsible Wine Drinking Can Save Your Life. Maybe.

When I was a law clerk I worked on a case for a client’s son who had been arrested for underage drinking and driving while intoxicated (DWI).  I was responsible for doing the research that made the sobriety test results inadmissible. And my research helped the firm establish that there was no probable cause to pull the kid over. So we got the kid off. And I was proud of myself for doing such a good legal job.

Can’t help but bring it up
And beat the point to death
But my Words are for nothing
I’m wasting my breath…

(Beat The Point To Death; Amy Winehouse)

Within six months the kid was dead. He was killed in his car, driving drunk. I wasn’t so proud anymore.  In fact, it made me decide that it was the last time I worked on a DWI case–and I almost quit law all together before I’d really even started. Not because I don’t think those arrested for DWI or DUI deserve representation, I do.  But maybe if I hadn’t worked so hard to get the kid off, he could have sobered up without a license, or in jail, or at least felt some of the consequences of driving drunk. Maybe he wouldn’t have died.


The Driver Suffered Minor Injuries

Sometimes I listen to audio podcasts at work. Sixty Minutes had a segment last week on drunk driving (DWI Deaths: Is It Murder?), and a prosecutor who is pushing for tougher penalties. Even without the benefit of video, the story was horrific.  In 2005, seven-year old Katie Flynn and her family were riding home in a limousine on a Nassau County (New York) parkway after she and her sister had served as flower girls in their aunt’s wedding. That was, until a pickup truck traveling 70 mph on the wrong side of the road slammed into it.

Chris and Denise Tangney, Katie’s grandparents, saw the truck coming from the back of the limo. “I saw this light come towards me. And I had to think for a second of what that was, ’cause that, it was just out of place,” Denise remembers. “I watched this single light come toward me and all of a sudden it went from a single light to a double light. It happened so quickly I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, we’re gonna get hit.'”

According to the story, both cars were destroyed. The driver of the limo was killed instantly.  The family had to be pried from the wreckage, and everyone suffered life-threatening injuries. And little Katie…

“The first thing I heard was my wife screaming, ‘Neil, Katie’s dead,'” Katie father’s Neil remembers. “And I kept saying, ‘No she can’t be dead. She’s just gotta be hurt real bad.’ But I didn’t know what Jen was looking at, what Jen saw.”

“I reached for Kate and she was on the floor. And all that was left of Kate Marie was her head, that I was able to take,” she (Katie’s mom) remembers.

And the driver?  Martin Heidgen, the 24-year-old insurance salesman driving the pickup truck had a blood alcohol content that was over three times the legal limit. He’d been on Long Island drinking at a friend’s party on the night of the Flynns’ wedding. Heidgen’s friends told him not to drive. He did anyway, driving for about three miles the wrong way on the parkway before slamming into the Flynns’ limousine and tearing their lives apart.

Martin Heidgen, the driver of the pickup, suffered minor injuries.

Depraved Indifference to Human Life

According to statistics from Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), there are nearly 13,000 Americans killed in drunk driving fatalities per year or one every 40 minutes. But despite all the publicity, advertising and education campaigns over the past 10 years, the number of drunk driving fatalities is not decreasing at a rapid rate. The Nassau County District Attorney who prosecuted Mark Heidgen says its because punishment is not tough enough. She’s trying to change that.

Martin Heidgen was arrested and charged not with manslaughter or negligent homicide, which is usually the charge in drunk driving fatalities – but with “with murder by depraved indifference.”

According to Kathleen Rice, the district attorney who prosecuted the case, “The statute under which he was charged required us to prove that through his actions, he had a completely depraved indifference to human life,” she said, because he acted so recklessly others were likely to die.  “His actions made the deaths of Katie Flynn and Stanley Rabinowitz (the limo driver) inevitable. It was as inevitable as taking a gun and firing it at an individual who’s standing five feet away from you,” Rice says.

Rice and other law makers are pushing to make harsher the penalties associated with drunk driving. Two new California laws and a tiered system of punishment severity in South Carolina will go into effect this year.

Maybe if the punishment for drunk driving were harsher at the time, Heidgen would have taken a cab. Maybe his friends would have taken his keys.


There but for the Grace of God…

In the United States, the perpetrator involved in a drunk driving fatality historically has rarely been charged with murder. Rice says it is because we, as a culture of social drinkers, tend to identify with the drunk driver, the perpetrator, rather than the victim or the victim’s family.

How many times have you heard, or said to yourself when thinking not of the victim, but the drunk driving the car; “there but for the grace of God, go I?”

And how many times has it been true?

How many times, after drinking several glasses of wine have we gotten behind the wheel, tipsy, or even drunk, and driven down the road, at night, a ticking time bomb? Because, we say to ourselves,

“I’m not that drunk.”

“It’s just a couple miles.”

“I’m more sober than she/he is, so I should drive.”

“It costs too much to call a cab.”

“I’m a professional for heavens sake!?”

And we have no business whatsoever being behind the wheel of a car. But we are. Because, well, that can’t happen to us.

Even though we have friends that have wrecked driving drunk. Even though we know people who had spent time in jail because they were arrested driving drunk. And some of us have lost friends and relatives in accidents where someone was driving drunk. Or God forbid, some of us even know people who got off with a minor slap on the wrist, after having killed people driving drunk.

Spitting Won’t Keep You Sober

If you’re planning to attend a wine tasting, know your limits, and plan for transportation.  Even if you use a spit bucket, as do most serious wine tasters, you’re going to absorb wine through your tongue and nose through respiration.  Here’s a blood alcohol calculator (BAC) to help determine if you’re driving impaired. As you can see, it doesn’t take too many glasses of wine to put your BAC over the legal limit to drive.

Miles drinks from spitbucket

So plan ahead. Because in addition to the hours of education and enjoyment that come with wine drinking, there also comes a great deal of responsibility.

Hire or take along a designated driver. Make sure you have the number of the taxi service in your cell phone and enough cash for a cab.  Many cities have a free service called  “TipsyTaxi” which provides cabs, free of charge, for those who have had to much to drink. Find out before you attend a wine tasting event. Or get a breathalizer or other device to help you test your sobriety.  According to the Sacremento Bee, there are even a number of downloadable iPhone applications, ready to test your sobriety through blood-alcohol calculators and balance tests. And know the penalties in your state for drunk driving.

While we may not be able to stop all the alcohol-related fatalities, maybe we can reduce them.  Perhaps we can keep those of us who focus on wine and the wine industry a little safer. Maybe we can help keep tipsy or drunken wine tasters off the road.  And maybe we can prevent just one fatality.


~ Amy Corron Power,
aka WineWonkette

Posted in Best of AWB, Posts, Rant

Amy Corron Power View posts by Amy Corron Power

A licensed attorney, Amy is a wine-lover, foodie, photographer, political junkie and award-winning author who writes about Wine, Food, Beer & Spirits. As Managing Editor & Tasting Director for Another Wine Blog, she travels all over the world's wine regions to share her experiences with her readers and legions of twitter, Instagram and Facebook friends and fans. Amy holds certifications through the International Sommelier Guild, and is also certified, with honors, as a California Wine Appellation Specialist (CWAS). She is a member of the Guild of Sommeliers, The Wine & Food Foundation of Texas and regularly attends Houston Sommelier Association events. Amy is also a contributor to the Chicken Soup for the Soul series of books, and was most recently published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Power of Gratitude.
  • Just happened along to this blog from Twitter and am really glad I did. Drinking responsibly is a rule that many should live by and we need more public education in this area to prevent more alcohol related accidents and deaths. Thanks for the vivid reminder and I will continue to come back for your updates.

    • Thanks very much. Listening to that podcast about the little girl I just felt really moved to share my story, and remind everyone of something we all ought to know.

  • Well done. As a cyclist, I can't tell you how important this is. Napa County actually has one of the highest rate of cycling deaths of anywhere. Wine is the blame more often than not.

    People that drink and drive give winos like us a bad name. Although I may have to check out those iPhone apps….

    • I did not know that about Napa, but it makes sense. Do they have any kind of education or awareness programs to try and combat it?

      • Without looking it up, I believe I read something about that somewhere. We like our rides out here just about as much as we like our wine. ;)

        Part of the problem is narrow roads and some of the most beautiful scenery around. Add a couple of tasting rooms and it's a recipe for disaster. Sonoma County has the same problem, just not quite as bad…yet.

        The irony of the whole situation to me is the time the CHP hauled me over on Hwy29. I was driving a friend's car, the DD changed his mind halfway through the day. I made the group stop to eat while I let my buzz wear off. On the way home I was following a guy who was obviously impaired. When the road went to four lanes, I busted past him. Unfortunately, it wasn't my car. I know what 80 feels like in my BMW, I didn't know what it felt like in his Mercedes. I hit it pretty quick and the CHP was right there and pulled me over. He was angry I passed the test and I was angry he got me, the sober person and not the drunk I'd been following for 10 miles. They do make a lot of DUI arrests up there. And that's a good thing.

        Here's the November 2008 report:

        I'm surprised at the amount of locals they got.

  • Dennis

    Thanks for the excellent post. You can't blame yourself for the self-destructive behavior of the kid you “got off” on that DUI rap. While a disabling BAC is a disabling BAC regardless of the source or type of alcohol (beer, wine, spirits) and equally deadly in all cases, it's the personal commitment to accountability for driving sober that is paramount.

    What I find frustrating and lacking in DUI statistics over the years, is detail re. the type of alcohol involved and the circumstances, as evident in the Nov 2008 link to a region's DUI arrests. It is possible that potential DUI violators would see themselves better in these DUI statistics if the beverage types and conditions were captured and disseminated by authorities. Of course if a violator mixed their beverages, the detail it lost.

    Wineries are partners along with responsible wine enthusiasts, in encouraging and enforcing responsible wine consumption. Beyond the basic DUI issue, and in the realm of Responsible Social Behavior (which includes avoiding DUI), in many AVAs, wineries have a policy where their staffs actively greet and refuse limos full of inebriated “tourists” from their establishments to protect their responsible wine enthusiast customers. This activity on the part of wineries should be recognized and encouraged.

    In the end, again, it's the personal commitment to accountability for driving sober that is paramount.

    • Thanks Dennis. If I were to wager a guess, at least in Houston, beer would most often be the drink we'd find associated with drunken driving. My guess would be that in Wine Country it would be wine. I do think its up to drinking establishments to refuse service to someone already drunk, but am always amazed at how many obviously “trashed” patrons have no problem getting another drink. Thanks for your thoughts and for stopping by!

  • Wow that's horrible about the kid that you helped. But I have known several people that were arrested for DUI and did get charged it never really helps the problem. Thankfully they haven't hurt anyone, yet.

    • It is amazing sometimes to watch people just do the same thing over and over and over again, taking a chance with their own lives and the lives of others. Sometimes people do get a wake up call — but for others sometimes that call is too late.

  • that happens a lot, I feel sorry for them, good thing that there's ms. amy here blogging about these incidents in helping us to be aware that too much drinking can kill you

  • Thanks Coach, for stopping by.

  • that happens a lot, I feel sorry for them, good thing that there's ms. amy here blogging about these incidents in helping us to be aware that too much drinking can kill you

  • Thanks Coach, for stopping by.

  • The majority of people who get arrested each year in this country for DUI are first time offenders. Honest, law abiding citizens who made the decision to drive after having 1 or 2 beers or glasses of wine and got busted for DUI. Everyone makes mistakes, the important thing is do they learn from those mistakes or do they keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

    I totally understand how you felt after helping this kid beat his DUI case and then he turns around and does it again and kills innocent people. I to work in the DUI field and I find it difficult to deal with habitual offenders just because you know these people are never going to learn their lesson and they may wind up killing someone, as happened in your post above.

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  • Thank you for bringing up this issue. People should realize about drinking wine thing. They have to stay focus to say enough or no more wine when they want to ride their vehicle.

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