Dennis BeaverJuly 23, 2021 • By Dennis Beaver 

When I was a deputy DA in Kern County in the 1970s – prosecuting DUI cases – I often wondered if these defendants could have kept themselves out of trouble had they known their blood alcohol levels before deciding to drive. But at that time, only law enforcement had breathalyzers.

It would take until 2001 – and a creative senior at the University of Pennsylvania – before owning a personal breathalyzer was possible. His name: Keith Nothacker, BACtrack is the company he founded, and today it has the dominant market share of personal breathalyzer sales in North America.

Nothacker’s invention – and the many companies that manufacture personal breathalyzers today – have had a profound impact on driver education and safety.

The Sad Tale of Lou, COVID and Breathalyzers for his Employees

“Mr. Beaver, ‘Lou,’ the owner of the moving and storage company I work for, was a fan of your column. Shortly before COVID shut down the country, he held a meeting with everyone, handed out copies of one of your articles on personal breathalyzers and announced that he would be buying them for all of us. And then, we heard nothing after that.

“Stubbornly refusing to be vaccinated, saying, ‘God will protect me,’ a couple of weeks ago Lou died from the delta variant of COVID. While it sounds crazy, we were so mad at him! He was a great boss killed by toxic faith and rejection of common sense and science.

“While going through his office, we found 20 unopened, brand-new, fuel cell breathalyzers which cost several thousand dollars that he purchased from a Canadian seller.

“I read somewhere that these devices need to be used to maintain accuracy. Wondering if the fact they had never even been opened for about two years since the date of manufacture would have an impact on accuracy, I phoned the company and was told to just toss them out, but they would offer a good price for replacements.

“I got a funny feeling they were not telling me the truth and so am writing you. Does the fact these breathalyzers were never used mean they are DOA? Can they be revived? Thanks, Andre, from New Orleans.”

Might Be Saved

I ran Andre’s question by Nothacker. “Are these devices dead or might they still be useable?”

He explained that fuel cell breathalyzers are not like any other type of electronic equipment. “A portable radio you can put away, not use for years and it will perform perfectly. Better quality breathalyzers with fuel cell technology – which is what law enforcement uses – have sensors which, with regular use, will refresh the sensor, maintaining accuracy.”

So, what’s the best way to care for a breathalyzer, maintain accuracy and increase its life span?

“These devices need to be used on a regular basis – ideally about once a month – to keep the sensor moist. It is the sensor which converts ethanol into electricity that can be measured to determine blood alcohol level (BAC.)

“Additionally, it is important to remember that all fuel cells have a life span and over time the sensor can drift. That’s why re-calibration on a yearly basis is recommended,” he points out, adding:

“If the sensor is unused for an extended period of timed — a year or more – it dries out and is less effective at converting ethanol to a numerical value. Practically speaking, a dried out sensor will give erroneously low BAC results.”

Where Should I Keep My Breathalyzer?

While logically it would make sense to store a breathalyzer in a car’s glove box, “That is the last place you want to keep it, because of the extreme temperatures and dryness that can occur in a car parked outdoors,” Nothacker underscores. “It should be kept within a range of 32 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Storage at an incorrect temperature may lead to a degradation of the sensor and you wind up with erroneous numbers or it might not perform at all.”

I learned there are other places not to store a breathalyzer. “Do not keep it under the bathroom cupboard with contaminants such as nail polish remover or any alcohol-based products, such as hand sanitizers or cleaning products.”

And Nothacker’s advice for Andre?

“There’s a good chance the devices are still functional. If he has a friend who is a police officer, compare the results with a law enforcement breathalyzer.”

I passed that recommendation on to my reader.

“It worked! All of them are accurate. Please thank Mr. Nothacker from all of us,” was the voice mail message he left me.

When I think of the many DUI cases that I handled, both as a prosecutor and then as a defense attorney, one thing stands out: Someone who has something to lose and who realizes the consequences of drinking and driving needs a breathalyzer.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.