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Too Drunk to Drive

Dateline: 09/03/97

The tragic death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in a vehicle crash in Paris this week, took an even darker turn when officials learned the driver of the limousine was apparently highly intoxicated.

This Labor Day, I wrote how drunk driving would claim hundreds of victims; the fact that one of them would be Princess Diana was the last possibility I would have imagined. But that's how drunk driving works -- it is no respecter of persons.

Now, perhaps more than ever before, the world's attention is focused on drinking and driving.

Diana, her escort Dodi Al Fayed, and the driver of the vehicle were killed when the Mercedes in which they were riding smashed into a concrete column at a high rate of speed as they reportedly tried to flee from pursuing photographers. Apparently the driver of the vehicle, normally a bodyguard and not the regular driver, lost control of the limosine.

How drunk was he?

According to a MSNBC news reports judicial sources said the driver, identified as Henri Paul, had an alcohol level measuring about 1.70 grams per liter of blood, a level which medical experts say can cause staggering and double vision and make it impossible to drive.

A report from CNN said "The legal limit of alcohol in a driver's blood in France is 0.5 grams per liter of blood, the equivalent of two glasses of beer or one glass of wine. Prosecutors said the driver's blood-alcohol level was 1.75 grams. That level would be the equivalent of a blood-alcohol reading of .175 percent under the U.S. system."

UPDATE: Later reports are now saying that Paul's blood alcohol level was 1.87 mg/l or about four times the legal limit. His parents, however, are disputing the claim and have taken steps to force more blood tests. Many other conflicting stories have been reported.

But these reports may not be accurate. Firstly, blood alcohol levels in France are measured in miligrams per liter, not grams. Secondly, 1.75 mg/l does not translate into a U.S. blood alcohol content of .175.

Not really understanding how to change Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) figures from the French to the U.S. system, I decided to visit an online BAC calculator at Intoximeters Incorporated website.

Plugging in information for a French male weighing approximately 70 kilograms, I had to push the amount of alcohol consumed up to 17 glasses of table wine in a two hour period to get the intoximeter up to the 1.82 level, approximately the level measured in Paul.

Then I went back and changed it to a 154-pound U.S. male and kept the intake at 17 glasses of wine within two hours. The meter returned a U.S. blood alcohol content of .380!

Don't take my word for it, try it yourself.

But using the 1.75 mg/l figure that was released by French prosecutors, this means that Paul was about 380 TIMES more likely to have had an "accident" than a driver who was criminally drunk at .48. Drivers with a .48 mg/l level are 380 times more likely to have a mishap than a sober driver. If you factor in the speed at which the auto was traveling, a reported 121 miles per hour, the risk factor jumps to astronomical proportions.

UPDATE: A visitor to the Alcoholism site sent the following clarification of the BAC levels reported for Henri Paul.

You have confused breath alcohol concentration which is measured in France in milligrams per litre, and blood alcohol concentration which is measured in grams per litre. Presumably it wasn't possible to get a breath measurement from Henri Paul since he was dead.

Anyway, the two values are of course correlated but not equivalent. There is an order of magnitude difference between the units used to measure them.

The legal limit for driving in most American states is 0.10 grams per 210 litres of breath. This is equivalent to approximately 1.0 grams per litre of blood.

Henri Paul is reported to have had a BLOOD alcohol concentration of 1.75 grams per litre. This is equivalent to approximately 0.175 grams per 210 litres of BREATH or 0.83 mg per litre of BREATH.

You mistakenly thought that the reports from France were of 1.75 mg per litre of breath which would be equivalent to a blood alcohol concentration of 3.675 grams per litre.

According to all reports, Paul was not Fayed's regular driver. His regular driver was sent ahead as a decoy to throw the paparazzi hounding the couple, leaving the bodyguard Paul to drive them in another vehicle.

This brings up a very disturbing question and one to which we may never know the answer, unless the lone occupant of the vehicle who survived, Diana's bodyguard, can shed some light on the situation when he is again able to talk.

The question is, if he was that drunk, why would anyone allow him to drive the Princess of Wales?

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