Bay Area residents and media members were drinking and driving on St. Patrick’s Day at Infineon Raceway, all with the blessing of the California Highway Patrol.

Thirteen people participated in the St. Patrick’s Day Sobriety Challenge at Infineon Raceway, a controlled wine and beer tasting demonstration that graphically illustrated the dangers of drinking and driving, even at levels below the legal limit of .08-percent.

The raceway teamed with the CHP and the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School's Highway Survival Program on the event, which was held purposely on St. Patrick’s Day, one of the top days each year in terms of alcohol consumption.

“Even people well under .08 will show impairment behind the wheel of an automobile,” said CHP Officer Jaret Paulson.  “It’s great to have a hands-on demonstration to show the effect alcohol has on drivers.”

Participants were surprised at the effect that just one to three alcoholic beverages had on their driving ability and their attitude behind the wheel.

“This was a positive experience,” said Napa’s Megan Dominici, whose brother was killed in a DUI collision in 2004.  “It was interesting because even at half the legal limit I would choose not to drive.  I feel more affected than I would’ve thought.”

Dominici was joined by a variety of Bay Area residents, including Ron Brocco, President of Sonoma Native Sons of the Golden West; Ray Sercu, Facilities Director at Vallerga's Markets in Napa; Jennifer Stewart, Development Director at Napa County Office of Education; Officer Robert Marin, Fairfield Police Department; and Brendan Moylan, owner of Moylan’s Brewery and Restaurant in Novato, among others.

Testers were given wine or Moylan’s beer before submitting to sobriety tests, including a breathalyzer analysis administered by the CHP. Once they reached approximately half the legal limit (.04-percent), drivers tested their skills on three different driving courses: a slalom course, braking course and a steering-accuracy course.  All drivers were accompanied by an instructor from the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School.

“The biggest change in everyone was a change in attitude,” said Paul Charsley, program logistics manager for the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School.  “Some people were more relaxed, some were more scared and many were more sloppy.  It’s just proof that even a little alcohol can change a lot.  We definitely noticed a difference in everyone’s driving.”

Statistics reflect the need for continued focus on drunk-driving prevention. In 2009, 37 percent of drivers and motorcyclists involved in fatal crashes on St. Patrick’s Day had a blood alcohol content of the legal limit or above, according to statistics by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Additional NHTSA statistics show that in 2009, there were 103 crash fatalities on St. Patrick’s Day.  Out of that number, 47 people were killed in traffic crashes that involved a drunk driver.