How Drunk is a .32 BAC and How Dangerous Is It?

Michael GrossmanFebruary 10, 2017 5 minutes

The news is often full of people who seem to have disregarded the maximum legal blood-alcohol content (BAC) of .08, drinking so much they violate not just the law, but common sense itself. Their tox-screen results suggest that many people arrested for intoxication have a BAC in the range of .15 to .30--well over the legal limit, with the latter number approaching potentially lethal levels. Some accounts actually suggest that the highest BAC ever recorded in the United States was in 1982, when an unidentified 24-year-old woman staggered into UCLA Hospital. A blood test showed her BAC was approximately 1.33% at the time of her admission. For perspective, that's almost 17 times the legal limit, and almost four times what is generally considered to be a lethal quantity of alcohol.

Leaving aside such rare instances of superhuman intake, though, people still manage to achieve reckless and surprising levels of drunkenness. Grossman Law has worked more dram shop cases than any other firm in Texas, and even we occasionally have to raise an eyebrow at the BAC indicated by police reports. One such instance, and the reason this came to mind, occurred recently in Houston on Saturday, January 28.

Intoxication Crash in Harris County

As I recently wrote, Harris County has a very high intoxication crash rate for a series of reasons. Another tragic incident joined the others on the 28th near the Eastex Freeway, when according to reports a male driver in a white Dodge Ram pickup truck, 32-year-old Ryan McLaughlin, ran a red light on the southbound feeder road at its intersection with Aldine Mail Route Road.

While running the light, McLaughlin's pickup smashed into the passenger side of a westbound Chevy Trailblazer on Aldine Mail Route Road. The female passenger in the t-boned SUV, Zulema Gonzalez, was killed by the impact; its unnamed driver and McLaughlin were taken to the hospital in serious condition. McLaughlin was tested for alcohol by Harris County deputies; the test results showed a .32 BAC--four times the legal limit of intoxication. He was also found to have two previous DWI charges, escalating the charges to felony murder per Texas law.

How Drunk is a .32 BAC?

When represented in its basic decimal form, a blood-alcohol content value can seem fairly abstract. In and of itself, ".32 BAC" doesn't really convey the scale of intoxication involved. Even noting that the figure is quadruple the maximum legal level of intoxication just confirms that it's illegal, but doesn't exactly clarify the danger of being that drunk on the road. To lend it some clearer perspective, consider a grim example from the recent past: Ethan Couch, the young man infamous for using an "affluenza" defense at trial, plowed his truck into a group of people assisting with a disable SUV. The crash killed four people and injured a total of nine others. Couch was tested for intoxication shortly after being taken into custody; his BAC was determined to be approximately .24--three times the legal limit permitted for adult drivers under Texas law.

The drunk driver in Houston exceeded Couch's level of intoxication by an entire multiplicative degree with respect to the legal threshold of .08. By .32, a driver is hovering near to complete loss of consciousness, or even fatality. Consider this chart created by the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC):


Ryan McLaughlin's specific dimensions were not disclosed with his name. Regardless, he would have had to consume a considerable amount of alcohol in a fairly narrow window to achieve a .32 BAC. Per the numbers cited on the chart, for example, a 160-pound man of average health would have to consume roughly 15 drinks in an hour to get that drunk. Even if he happened to be heavier, steady drinking over an evening would produce a similar result. His personal dimensions aside, though, he would have exhibited signs of intoxication long before he reached .32 BAC. Even if the drinking was stretched over a longer interval, an entire hour of non-consumption only lowers a party's BAC by about .015, so a few hours of slightly-more-moderate intake would still yield a very intoxicated motorist.

As I noted, we at the firm are no strangers to dram shop law, and we've regrettably seen our share of drunk drivers. With that said, maybe two out of the many hundreds we have worked have had BAC of this magnitude. While over-serving is against the law no matter the degree to which it is done, continuing to serve a patron to the excessive degree required for a .32 BAC constitutes serious negligence on the part of the bar's staff. It would appear that appropriate care was not exercised by the bartenders or waiters as long as the patron's money held out.

If .08 is the point at which a bar should stop serving one under the law, and .16 a point at which it is next to impossible for someone not to notice that a person is drunk, a bar that serves someone until they're a .32 is blatantly flouting the law. This isn't serving someone until they're drunk, it's serving someone until they've imbibed a quantity of alcohol large enough to get 4 people drunk.

It's technically possible that Ryan McLaughlin was drinking at home or at a friend's (it might explain how he managed to get so thoroughly drunk without any apparent oversight), but this theory doesn't seem likely. While news releases have not been specific about the time of the collision, they have indicated that it occurred "overnight" and "on Saturday morning," suggesting that it most likely happened in the wee hours on the 28th. This is not an uncommon window of time for bar patrons to head home after an evening of drinking. Add that the crash occurred overnight as the weekend began, and we can make a logical guess that McLaughlin was returning home from a bar when he killed Zulema Gonzalez and injured her companion.

Dram Shop Law Does Not Excuse Drunk Driving.

The bar that over-served Ryan McLaughlin should be held responsible for its role in helping him get so thoroughly polluted. I stand by that idea. Had appropriate restraint (the kind required by law) been exercised by the bar staff--had anyone taken the time to notice exactly how many drinks had been served to this patron, or how his speech and coordination were likely inhibited--a tragedy might have been avoided. Lives were lost that didn't have to be, and I certainly feel some kind of way about that.

However, McLaughlin himself cannot be overlooked when apportioning blame. He still made the choices that another entity enabled. His money bought those rounds of drinks; his hand raised them to his mouth. With two prior DWI charges, he even had the benefit of prior experience to teach him that the path he trod didn't lead anywhere good, so while I will grant that mounting intoxication is inversely proportional to self-preservation acumen, "STOP" is a self-preservation trigger that the brain can parse even when intoxicated.

Since this is his third similar offense, Texas courts will try McLaughlin on murder charges rather than DWI. I feel no malice toward him, but I will say that I hope justice is done, for Zulema Gonzalez and for everyone.