September 10, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
It is back to college for students all across America. For many, this means party time which usually includes drinking – and we’re not talking Welch’s grape juice.
It also means driving for some when they should not be doing so for obvious reasons. Few intend to drive while over the .08 Blood Alcohol Concentration legal limit in all states; fewer still plan on getting arrested for a DUI. There isn’t a college student in the land who wants the local sheriff to place the worst possible kind of phone call any parent would want to receive – at 2 in the morning.
Nothing will ever change the reality that intoxicated drivers – regardless of their precise blood alcohol level – are going to place themselves at risk for a DUI arrest, and others on the road for an accident. Given the fact that college students are going to drink, the focus of today’s story is a direct response to a question from “Sean,” a third-year student at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is a member of a fraternity with a reputation for “heavy duty partying, at one of America’s true party schools,” he told me.
It was supposed to be accurate
“Some months ago, the father of one of my frat brothers thought that it would be a good idea to buy a breathalyzer and have everyone at our parties who planned to drive home test their blood alcohol content level.
“He found one which was approved by both the Department of Transportation and U.S. Coast Guard, and cleared by the Food and Drug Administration. Both advertising and packaging material described it as an ‘accurate and the most advanced professional breath-testing system available.’ He paid almost $200 for the unit.
“We used it at one of our big parties, and a number of students blew well over the .08 limit. There were many who were well under that level, and we cleared them to drive home. Some requested repeat tests, and then we noticed something odd. Repeated tests gave inconsistent results, which we should have doubted, but just thought they were not blowing into the device correctly.
“For example, one student who had just blown a .08, two minutes later blew into the breathalyzer again, and it registered a .05, meaning she was well under the legal limit. We just assumed that the difference – which was significant in such a short period of time – meant that she had not blown a proper breath sample the first time. We cleared her to drive home.
“The next day, we got phone calls from several students who were stopped by the police, administered their breathalyzer, and blew vastly higher numbers. In one instance, it was three times of what we recorded – he blew a .16, two times over the limit for a DUI arrest.
“We actually sent our unit back to the distributor and they sent it right back, claiming that it was performing to specifications. I feel that we – and all the people we tried to protect – are the victims of false advertising, as clearly this device – which we used correctly – just can’t be trusted.
“It is my understanding that you have written about this subject in the past. Is there such a thing as an accurate personal breathalyzer, or are all of these things just junk?”
Most consumer breathalyzers are inaccurate and inconsistent
“The experience of this particular fraternity with an expensive and useless breathalyzer is not unique. The majority of consumer breathalyzers on the market today are inaccurate and potentially dangerous for anyone who relies on the blood alcohol concentration numbers they give,” Barry Knott, president and CEO of Denver-based, Lifeloc Corporation told me when we discussed Sean’s question.
Lifeloc is one of a handful of breathalyzer manufacturers that sells accurate units to government, law enforcement and the medical profession, as well as consumer versions of the same devices. They use a completely different technology fuel cell than the majority of consumer devices sold today, which are inherently inaccurate and use semiconductors.
“You and the Law” has reviewed a university study of consumer breathalyzers commissioned by Lifeloc. It found the claims of accuracy by many manufacturers, distributors and retailers of consumer breathalyzers to be “misleading and exploit consumer interest in Blood Alcohol Concentration measurements.”
Next week, we’ll give you specific buying tips for getting a truly accurate breathalyzer, and explain how it is that our very own Food and Drug Administration, Department of Transportation and Coast Guard can easily be seen as negligent accomplices in what amounts to a dangerous consumer fraud on a massive scale.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.