July 24, 2008 -- A Rhode Island man arrested this week for drunk driving had a potentially lethal blood-alcohol level and the highest ever recorded by police, setting a new state record.
Stanley Kobierowski, 34, was arrested in Providence, R.I., after smashing his car into an electronic message sign. According to state police, he allegedly blew a .489 and .491 on a Breathalyzer at the scene. That's more than six times the state's legal limit. He was brought to a local hospital and held for two days until sober enough to be arraigned, police said.
Kobierowski may be Rhode Island's record-setting drunk driver, but across the country police are reporting incidents of extreme drunk driving with recorded blood-alcohol levels reaching limits that doctors say would be lethal to most people.
The record-breaking levels have inspired some states to require convicted drunk drivers who have tested well over the legal limit to install in their cars ignition interlock devices that prevent drunks from starting the automobile.
States with interlock laws are divided between those that require the device for repeat offenders and those based on high BAC levels even for first-time offenders. Earlier this month Florida joined Kansas, Virginia and West Virginia in requiring first-time convicted drunk drivers arrested with blood alcohol content levels of more than .15 to install the devices in their cars.
No national statistics exist on BAC levels at time of arrest, but recent news reports pose an intriguing question: How do these drivers function, let alone live, with potentially deadly amounts of alcohol in their systems?
In November 2007, a 130-pound woman was arrested in Oregon with a blood-alcohol level of .55, seven times the state's legal limit and above the .4 concentration considered lethal according to physicians.
An Oregon judge set bail for Meagan Harper, 30, at $50,000.
A BAC level of .55, according to the Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Studies, would require a 100-pound man or woman to consume roughly 10 drinks in an hour or a 200-pound man to drink about six drinks each hour for four hours.
In December 2007, Terri Comer, 42, and also from Oregon, was arrested with a .72 blood alcohol level, nine times the state's legal limit.
Klanath County sheriff's deputies found the woman behind the wheel of her Toyota in a coma. Police said they removed the woman from her car and brought her to a local hospital for treatment. Photos of the scene show her car parked in a snow bank just feet from an electronic sign reminding drivers not to drink and drive.
"Levels between .4 and .5 are fatal in most cases," said Dr. Nicholas Pace, a professor at NYU School of Medicine and author of "Teens Under the Influence."
"These situations involve people with incredibly high BAC levels but who nevertheless are functioning enough to get behind a wheel," Pace said. "For someone to be walking around with that much alcohol in their body, he has got to have an increased tolerance, which probably means he's an alcoholic."
"If a naïve drinker, an inexperienced drinker, had a BAC approaching those levels, he would normally die," he said.
A 100-pound male who consumes 10 drinks (12 oz. beers) in one hour still would only have a BAC of .374, just under the average level of lethality, according to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Pace estimated Kobierowski, the Rhode Island man, consumed 10 to 14 drinks over the course of an hour or two.
"A .1 might be after five drinks in an hour, reaction is greatly slowed, muscle control is impaired, they're uncoordinated. Seven to 10 drinks in an hour, you're losing bladder control. Somebody that drinks 10 to 14 drinks in an hour can really get into trouble, they're approaching the lethal range of .4 to .5," he said.
Other factors -- weight, gender, underlying medical conditions, the amount of food consumed while drinking -- can affect someone's BAC, said Dr. Lawrence S. Brown, a professor at the Cornell School of Medicine and senior vice president of the Addiction Research and Treatment Corp.
"With respect to high levels and lethality, all of the above mentioned are factors to consider, and you still have to account for the way the tests were done -- who calibrated the instruments and who performed the test. Those concerns have legal and clinical ramifications," he said.
Perhaps the highest recorded BAC level in a person who lived was reported in 2005 in the southern Bulgarian city of Plovdiv.
According to the CBC and other international reports, doctors tested a man's blood-alcohol level five times before accepting it was .914 -- twice the amount considered to be fatal.