DennisBeaverJanuary 31, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver

Last week we began our look at personal breathalyzers, consumer versions of what law enforcement uses to measures a suspected drunk driver’s Blood Alcohol Level (BAC) This time, here are some recommendations on what to buy, but even more important, what not to buy. But first, let’s talk numbers — the numbers you don’t want to blow if stopped.

Register a BAC of .08 or more, and it’s off to jail. Have a Commercial Drivers License? Your limit is .05 and if actually driving a commercial vehicle, a conviction with a .01 is possible.

When you figure that the typical alcoholic drink equals a .02 BAC, it doesn’t take many to be in the “at-risk” category for a DUI.

“DUI arrests are among the easiest to avoid. Unless we have a BAC well over .08 for the average driver — it’s rare to arrest or prosecute,” a California CHP officer who asked to remain anonymous told me. “Obviously, it is not a good idea to ever drive after having any amount of alcohol, but if you are going to drink and drive, then before you get close to your car, know your real BAC. You can do this by owning your own breathalyzer, but it had better be a good one,” he added.

The cost of even a “simple” DUI is around $10,000, and often much more. We’re talking close to $2,000 in fines, jail time, drunk drivers’ school, loss of your license — which could lead to losing a job — and monumental increases in insurance rates. But it gets worse: Having even one DUI will make it impossible to get hired for certain jobs, could impact credit as well as being unable to rent an apartment or house.

Understand the differences in breathalyzers

Over the past few years consumer breathalyzers appeared on the market, some as cheap as $15. In this case, “cheap” means you can’t trust the numbers. The reason is because of the technology used in most inexpensive consumer breathalyzers.

You and the Law interviewed presidents of two of the nation’s largest manufactures of both police and accurate Personal Breathalyzers, Barry Knott of Denver, Colo.-based Lifeloc Technologies and Keith Nothacker, president of BacTrack Breathalyzers of San Francisco. Knott zeroed right in on those breathalyzers to be avoided for anyone wanting accuracy:

“Until recently, virtually all consumer breathalyzers used semiconductor technology which cannot be relied on to give an accurate reading. None of them can be trusted. The individual range of readings is enormous. They can easily read extremely low or high, and you have no idea if the number generated is accurate.”

“But what if you simply need to know if someone has been drinking — not necessarily an accurate BAC — but if that student, employee, son or daughter has consumed some alcohol?” I asked.

“In this situation,” replied BacTrack’s Keith Nothacker, “there is a place for semiconductor breathalyzer to be used as a screening device. High schools buy them as they are inexpensive, and permit the staff to test for the presence of alcohol. They answer the question, provided the device is used properly and calibration has been maintained.”

So, what should I buy?

It is now possible to own a Personal Breathalyzer that has the same accuracy as those used by law enforcement, using platinum fuel cell technology.

“Initially developed for health care and law enforcement, recent advances in manufacturing techniques have brought the price level down significantly,” notes BacTrack’s president.

“Fuel Cells are accurate, consistent and respond quickly over a wide range of alcohol breath concentrations. As they only react to alcohol, the results are not influenced by cigarette smoke, perfume, or other chemicals,” Knott pointed out.

Our experience and recommendations

You and the Law tested Lifeloc’s Lifeguard and BacTrack’s S75 Pro. We put them up against a breathalyzer used by the California Highway Patrol, the FC-10. These personal breathalyzers performed with equal accuracy to the FC-10 and cost a fraction of its price.

We also tested them all against a new “professional” semiconductor breathalyzer selling for around $150. It gave readings that were scary.

One subject consumed 5 drinks, giving a fuel cell BAC reading of .09 = DUI level. The semiconductor results ranged from .01 to .04 = no likely arrest. But one reading was far more interesting: .40 — close to being comatose, dead, or on life-support.

Which is where that unit belonged.

I can recommend any of the consumer fuel cell breathalyzers sold by Lifeloc or BacTrack. They work. They keep you out of jail. In the hands of someone who likes alcohol and who has a conscience, they save marriages. They save lives.

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