Thursday, August 30, 2007

Personal breathalyzers are up for sale

Amy LeJune didn't feel tipsy when she blew into a personal breathalyzer.

But in just a few seconds, the sleek, cellphone-size device beeped and displayed her blood-alcohol level, which was 0.06 -- perilously close to Texas' 0.08 limit, which would mean certain arrest if she were stopped by police while driving home.

"I don't feel like I'm drunk at all," said the Grand Prairie woman, who on a recent evening took the breath test in the stairwell of downtown Fort Worth's Pour House, where she had consumed three beers. "I would think I could drive right now. I wouldn't have any hesitation getting in the car, which is kind of scary."

Alcohol breath-test machines, the tools of police and probation officers, are becoming a hit with social drinkers. Consumer versions of the same technology used by officers for decades to measure blood-alcohol concentration are now small enough to fit into a pocket or purse. The price has dropped because high-tech improvements since 2004 have made them cheaper to manufacture.

But critics warn that making it easier for people to check their own sobriety doesn't necessarily make the streets safer. "It gives people a false sense of security," said Misty Moyse, spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving's national headquarters in Irving. "Alcohol affects people differently, and impairment begins with the first drink."

And just because the gadgets are now easy to carry around doesn't mean they're easy to use. A Star-Telegram test of one model showed that the instrument, while technically accurate, was tricky to operate and sometimes gave misleading results.

"I think if they can afford it, and they will use it correctly, it will be a very valuable tool," said Steven Kleypas, who oversees the breath-alcohol training program at the Tarrant County College Northwest Campus. "The problem is, they tend to use it as a play toy, and it's very easy to damage one."

DWI crackdown

This week across North Texas and the U.S., officers are conducting drunken-driving sweeps. The Labor Day weekend is typically a time when extra officers are on patrol, searching for drivers who are swerving, speeding or otherwise behaving dangerously.

In many of those cities, police oppose the personal breath-test gadgets. They suspect that many drivers wouldn't know how to interpret the results.

"It's easy to fool yourself. You could be impaired even if you're not over or at the legal limit," said Christy Gilfour, Arlington police spokeswoman. "If 0.08 is the legal limit, does that mean 0.07 is OK to drive? It's good for people to be educated about the effects of alcohol, but it would not be wise for them to try to educate themselves while in an inebriated state."

Knowing your limits

Advocates of the gadgets say people ought to be able to test themselves before they get into trouble. They note that plenty of agencies use essentially the same technology to test suspected alcohol abusers after the fact:

Drunken-driving offenders in Texas and elsewhere often must install interlocking devices on their ignition, requiring them to blow into a machine before their car will start.

Some shelters require the homeless to blow into a device before entry.

Employers use the instruments to test workers in safety-sensitive jobs -- a forklift driver, for example.

While police typically can't use the results of handheld machines in court, they can use the devices to get probable cause of intoxication and make an arrest -- then take the suspect for a more formal, court-enforceable test later at the police station.

Despite MADD's official position against the personal machines, at least one MADD chapter in Arizona uses such a device to monitor drunken-driving offenders attending a court-mandated meeting with victims. One of the requirements of the sessions is that the offenders should not show up with booze on their breath.

Restaurateurs and others who serve drinks say the breath testers could ultimately reduce alcohol-related fatalities. Giving people as much information as possible about the effects of alcohol logically would make for a more educated and responsible society, said Sarah Longwell, spokeswoman for the Washington-based American Beverage Institute. The institute represents restaurants and other businesses that serve drinks, and it generally believes that moderate drinkers aren't a safety threat behind the wheel.

"It allows people to clearly understand the law, and the distinction between responsible drinking and driving, and drunk driving," she said. "What's wrong with people understanding what 0.08 means? Right now, a 120-pound woman who has two glasses of wine can be 0.08, and she's punished at the same level as a big guy who's had 15 beers and is driving with a BAC of 0.15."


Many are sold online, while others can be found in catalogs or electronic stores. At Sharper Image in Hurst's North East Mall, two to three people a week stop in looking for a breath-test machine, manager Ferdinand George said. "For some reason, the customers really like them black," he said. "If it's black, you can keep it inside the purse, and you really can't see it."

Stamp of approval

A breath-test machine is considered a medical-testing device and is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which has put its seal of approval on 10 models, an agency spokeswoman said.

Design standards for personal breath-testing devices are set by the U.S. Transportation Department, although that agency doesn't endorse them for consumer use. The standards were originally created for breath-test models used by law enforcement and employment screeners.

Some consumer models mention in their advertisements that they comply with Transportation Department standards. They are sometimes tested in private labs that mimic the department's testing standards, so they can include the claim in their advertising.

What is it?

A personal breathalyzer is a battery-operated device that calculates how much alcohol is in a person's bloodstream by analyzing air from deep inside the lungs.

How does it work?

The user typically must refrain from eating, drinking or smoking for 15 to 20 minutes, to avoid getting a false reading or damaging the instrument's sensors. The user turns on the machine, takes a deep breath and exhales for about five seconds into a small sensor. A digital reading usually appears within seconds.

How much does it cost?

Several models can be bought for $80 to $140.

What they're saying

"We know these units are saving lives, just from talking with customers over the years. You can't argue with a number."

Keith Nothacker, founder of KHN Solutions, maker of the BACtrack.

"This is awesome. If you're driving, sure, it could be a good deterrent."

Jeff Harrison, above, of Fort Worth, whose rate was 0.12. He said he lived a block away and intended to walk home.

"I think it's wrong. If you've had as much beer as I've had, there's no way I can drive."

Kevin Timmons of Grapevine registered a 0.06. He said he was going to take a cab home.

"It gives people a false sense of security. Alcohol affects people differently, and impairment begins with the first drink."

Misty Moyse, spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving's national headquarters in Irving


This week a national impaired-driving crackdown gets into high gear.

More than $1 million is being spent on increased DWI enforcement in Texas. The Texas Department of Transportation is posting messages such as "Drink, drive, go to jail" on its electronic highway signs.

Officials have stepped up Labor Day weekend drunken-driving police patrols.

The toll

There were 1,354 alcohol-related deaths in Texas last year, the highest of any state, U.S. Transportation Department records show.

Nationwide, 13,470 people were killed last year in crashes involving a driver or a motorcycle rider with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or higher.

source: Fort Worth Star Telegram

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