“State of the Art” Breathalyzers: A History

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on October 6th, 2005

Getting convictions in the ongoing "War on Drunk Driving" depends upon the public’s faith in blood-alcohol evidence — particularly in the so-called "breathalyzers". And over the 35 years or so that I’ve prosecuted and then defended, prosecutors have always represented them to juries as deadly accurate and fail-safe — no matter what make or model the breath machine. State of the art.

Yet, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon….. The manufacturers keep changing them.

A whole lot of years ago, when I was dealing with the grandaddy of the "modern" breath machines, the Breathalyzer 900, these devices were presented to juries as ushering in a new age of highly accurate breath-alcohol analysis. And which scientific laboratory developed and manufactured these scientific wonders? Smith and Wesson. Yes, the manufacturer of that marvel of science, the six-shooter. And, of course, there were endless problems with these machines, so Smith and Wesson modified it and offered the model 900A. Which continued to have problems, so S&W developed the Breathalyzer 900B — followed by the new, improved, "state of the art" and now truly foolproof Breathalyzer 1000. Which turned out to be less reliable than the 900. Of course, this led to the model 1100, followed by the absolutely-no-fooling-state-of-the-art Breathalyzer 2000. Which eventually led to Smith and Wesson finally throwing up their hands and selling out to a German company, Draeger. (Incidentally, the old Breathalyzer 900s are still being used by some police departments today.)

Meanwhile, other corporations had smelled the government money. A new player, Omicron Systems, came out with a machine to compete with the Breathalyzer: the Intoxilyzer. Omicron then sold out to CMI, Inc., which produced the Intoxilyzer 4011 — offered as a vast improvement over the Breathalyzers. This model, like the Breathalyzer, was followed by a series of modifications and improvements (models 4011A, 4011AR, 4011AS, et al.) and, of course, finally by ditching the machine for their new, ultimate machine: the Intoxilyzer 5000. Truly state of the art. Except it wasn’t. So back to the drawing board — and the latest model, the Intoxilyzer 8000. Which, jurors are again assured, is completely reliable and deadly accurate — until the next improved version.

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