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Holiday party experiment: You may be drunker than you think on New Year's Eve

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This woman was surprised when she blew a Breathalyzer that was above the legal limit. TODAY photo This woman was surprised when she blew a Breathalyzer that was above the legal limit. TODAY photo

By Jeff Rossen and Lindsey Bomnin, TODAY

(NBC News) - According to new government data, during the New Year's holiday, 36 percent of all traffic deaths involve drunk driving. For anyone headed to a New Year's Eve party this weekend, a social experiment that TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen and his team set up in 2013 remains just as relevant today.

The Rossen Reports team invited a group of friends to a restaurant, telling them it was for a story about holiday drinking. What they didn't know was that after the party, a local police officer working with TODAY would be giving them Breathalyzer and field sobriety tests.

Half the guests were told to drink as they normally would, and the other half were told not to drink at all, so they could serve as designated drivers. (Car services were also hired as a backup to make sure everyone got home safely.)

One partygoer who drank, Kim, thought she would be OK if she waited "at least an hour, hour and a half" before she drove. But when she was given a Breathalyzer test after that time, she was surprised to find that after only two drinks, she had a blood alcohol level of 0.1 percent (the legal limit is 0.08 percent).

"I thought I could have two and be safe," Kim said. Authorities say that's a common mistake. Even after you stop drinking, your blood alcohol level can continue to rise as the liquor seeps into your system.

Another partygoer, Ron, thought he could safely drive two blocks home. But given a field sobriety test, he was unable to do it. His blood alcohol level was 0.13.

"I probably would have gotten into a car to drive home had I been at a local bar," Ron admitted. "God forbid I'd hurt someone or killed somebody."

Authorities say the message is: Even when you have just one drink, you can be physically impaired, and so is your judgment. If you're driving, don't drink at all.

Not to mention, you can easily get caught. As the holidays approach, police are stepping up DUI patrols and setting up checkpoints.

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