Is it common in English to refuse to drink offered alcohol by saying "I am sorry, but I can't drink. I am behind the wheel today" meaning that today they still need to drive, so they can't drink. I've looked through different cases of "behind the wheel" given by Google and discovered that they all have slightly different connotation - they put emphasis on being in control of something ("Are you behind the wheel in this system or should I ask someone else?", "Who is the one behind the wheel here?")

up vote 6 down vote accepted

No, it's not a matter of connotation or emphasis. The distinction is whether or not you're driving a vehicle.

behind the wheel

  1. Driving a vehicle (and thus literally sitting behind the steering wheel). Don't worry, Katie's behind the wheel, and she hasn't been drinking tonight. I'm so excited to finally be behind the wheel of my own car!
  2. In charge. With Jim behind the wheel, I'm not sure this team will have the leadership it needs.
    (TFD)

Unless that something is a car, the examples you gave of "begin in control of something" are being used in the sense of definition 2.

I am sorry, but I can't drink. I am behind the wheel today.

Is that common? I'm not sure, but it sounds perfectly fine to me.

I would probably say

I am sorry, but I can't drink.

  1. I'm driving today/later/etc. (← keeping it simple)
  2. I'm the designated driver.

But again, your way is also understandable.

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    This may be a regional difference, but "I'm behind the wheel today" sounds very strange to this US English speaker - like the speaker was a foreigner who wasn't familiar with the idiom. I'm behind the wheel, when it refers to driving, means "I am driving right now"; it wouldn't be used to mean "I plan on driving later." – stangdon Aug 19 at 12:56
  • @stangdon - So, if I said, "I can't drink. I am behind the wheel today", that would sound strange to you. I kind of suspected that that might sound strange - that's why I asked this question. Then, what would you yourself say in that situation? – brilliant Aug 21 at 23:19
  • @brilliant - I would probably say "I'm driving today" or "I'm driving later." Both of those are good, fluent choices. – stangdon Aug 22 at 12:56
  • @stangdon - I see. Thank you. – brilliant Aug 22 at 13:06

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