Diabetes and the Counterfeit DUI

Posted by Lawrence Taylor on October 18th, 2004

Contrary to popular belief, police officers have no inherent skill and little training in detecting levels of intoxication. In fact, they are psychologically predisposed in a drunk driving investigation to "see" what they expect to see, disregarding any alternative explanations.

Let’s take a look at one of those possibilities…..As everyone knows, diabetics commonly experience hypoglycemia (low blood sugar levels). And what are the symptoms? Slow and slurred speech, poor balance, impaired motor control, staggering, drowsiness, flushed face, disorientation — in other words, the classic symptoms of alcohol intoxication. This individual will look and act like a drunk driver to the officer, and will certainly fail any DUI "field sobriety tests". As one expert has observed, "Hypoglycemia (abnormally low levels of blood glucose) is frequently seen in connection with driving error on this nation’s roads and highways…Even more frequent are unjustified DUIs or DWIs, stemming from hypoglycemic symptoms that can closely mimic those of a drunk driver." From "Hypoglycemia: Driving Under the Influence" in 8(1) Medical and Toxicological Information Review Sept. 2003.

But, of course, a Breathalyzer will clear him, right?

Wrong. Ignoring for the moment the inherent inaccuracy and unreliability of these machines, most suffer from a little-known design defect: they do not actually measure alcohol! Rather, they use infrared beams of light which are absorbed by any chemical compound (including ethyl alcohol) in the breath which contains the "methyl group" in its molecular structure; the more absorption, the higher the blood-alcohol reading. The machine is programmed to assume that the compound is "probably" alcohol. Unfortunately, thousands of compounds containing the methyl group can register as alcohol. One of these is "acetone". And a well-documented by-product of hypoglycemia is a state called "ketoacidosis", which causes the production of acetones in the breath. In other words, the Breathalyzer will read significant blood alcohol levels on a diabetic’s breath where there may be little or none. See, for example, Brick, "Diabetes, Breath Acetone and Breathalyzer Accuracy: A Case Study", 9(1) Alcohol, Drugs and Driving (1993).

But this rarely happens, right? Fact: roughly one in seven sober drivers on the road suffers from diabetes.

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  • tilla

    a well-documented by-product of hypoglycemia is a state called “ketoacidosis”

    You’re talking about HYPERglycemia here, not hypo-, when talking about diabetic ketoacidosis.

  • phyllis leal

    ifind this to be ridiculous. Due to improper examining of those who suffer from hypoglycemia.although they may seem to have the same symptoms as an impaired driver..a question among the solution to having afair charge can be..Did the driver have the smell of alcohol coming from his/her breath or vehicle?