Edinburgh Evening News Tue 4 Apr 2006

Why I had a shot (or 6) on Rita

I'VE jusht downed about half a pint of ffvodkhaa in ten minutes flat and I'm in hoshpital. I did it becaushe of Rita. Not that Rita ish one of thoshe people who drive you to drink. In fact Rita ishn't a pershon at all. She'sh a computer.

This may sound like the hopeless ramblings of a drunkard but Rita is actually a new gadget devised by Edinburgh University scientist Dr Brian Tiplady to help police test whether drivers have been drinking or taking drugs. And the reason I am in the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary is because that is where the university's clinical research facility is based. I have agreed to be one of the 120 volunteers the university is paying 50 each to help trial Rita, or the Roadside Impairment Testing Apparatus.

Rita features a series of simple tests designed to check the users' ability to carry out different tasks simultaneously - a key skill when driving. If the Home Office-commissioned trial is successful, Rita could eventually replace the traditional "stand on one leg and count" tests currently used at the roadside. To test the gadget's effectiveness, volunteers in Edinburgh have to agree to try Rita and the traditional roadside tests when sober and also when drunk.

Which brings me back to my boozy introductory session which is designed to check whether the dose of alcohol researchers have calculated from my weight and height should put me over the legal drink-drive limit are enough to do that. I don't think I've ever drank so much alcohol so quickly and with so little mixer. I can't help but think that making everyone down half a dozen shots of 37.5 per cent-strength vodka with the merest hint of orange squash in the middle of a weekday on an empty stomach would be a pretty good way to solve Scotland's drinking problem altogether.

Drinking in what looks more like a hospital ward than a lab is an odd experience, especially when you know the staff working around you are all sober. As I drain the dregs from my plastic beaker I am already feeling the effects of what I'm later told was about four and a half shots of vodka. And I am soon chatting away to three other volunteers animatedly as we get progressively more drunk. During the next two hours or so we are all breathalysed every 12 minutes to check our blood alcohol levels. 

Incredibly, despite the fact that we all feel totally unfit to drive, none of us gives a reading above the legal drink-drive limit, which is 35mg of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath or 80mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood. This highlights an ongoing debate about whether the legal limit should be lowered to 50mg of alcohol in 100ml of blood, as it is in other European countries - something everyone from the police to the British Medical Association is in favour of.

Volunteers on the tests are not told whether they are drinking alcohol or a placebo, in this case just orange squash. But despite being given a special lozenge to suck to try to mask the taste of alcohol, I detect the presence of copious amounts of vodka instantly when I return a few weeks later for my first proper test session. I struggle to finish my drink and soon feel drunk and slightly ill. Just before downing my drink I have a trial run on Rita to familiarise me with the six computer tests.

They include tracking a moving ball with a stylus while simultaneously pressing a button every time a road sign flashes up, and pressing buttons in response to an array of different shapes which appear at random, hitting left or right according to where they first appeared on the screen. After finishing my drink I am put through the traditional roadside tests. Reading out the same instructions which police officers use, the research nurse tells me to close my eyes, tilt my head back and touch my nose with either finger as directed. Feeling quite unsteady and giggly I fear I am going to poke myself, or maybe even someone else, in the eye but somehow I get my nose.

Moving on to Rita the tests seem quite easy at first, but I make a few basic errors and after a few minutes on the "follow the ball" task my vision begins to blur. After another break and a further breathalyser check I repeat both tests. This time I feel fine on the physical tests but still make a couple of mistakes on the computer. Returning for the second session a week later I am relieved that this time there should be no more vodka. Despite that I think I probably wobble as much as I did when I was drunk when standing on one leg in my heels. The computer tests are straightforward but again I still make a few mistakes. The results of the trial should be known by the end of the summer. Dr Tiplady, who is principal investigator in the study, hopes Rita will be introduced across the UK.

He explains: "The standard roadside tests are somewhat subjective. The tests on Rita all look at tasks of divided attention, which is what driving is all about, in a more objective way. It should be especially useful for testing drug drivers, because while we have a breathalyser for alcohol there is no breathalyser for drugs." Chief Inspector Kenny Buchanan, of Lothian and Borders' road policing branch, agrees. He says: "Anything which can replace tests which rely on officers' observation with a more formalised electronic set-up that is proven to work would be an improvement for drug-drive testing."

Dozens more volunteers are still needed for the Rita trial. To take part you must be aged 18 to 70, be a light to moderate social drinker and in good health. In return you will be paid 50 plus travel expenses. For more information, call the Edinburgh University Clinical Research Facility on 0131-242 9407.