Can Alcohol Sensors in All Cars Eliminate Drunk Driving?

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Last week federal officials said that new technology which could be installed in all new cars in the next five years could eliminate drunk driving.

The new technology, however, isn’t doing anything we’re not already doing: preventing a vehicle from being started by someone who has a blood alcohol content above the legal limit. What is different is the method by which this is being accomplished.

Passive breath sensors or touch-sensitive contact points on a starter button or gear shift would immediately register the blood alcohol content of a driver. Unlike the ignition interlock devices, which require a driver to blow into a tube to provide a breath sample and start a car, drivers of vehicles with the new technology need not do anything for a BAC level to be detected.

“The message today is not ‘Can we do this?’ but ‘How soon can we do this?’ ” said Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “It is a huge step forward.”

Although cost estimates of the new technology have not yet been made, officials anticipate the costs, once the sensors go into general production, to be comparable to the cost of seat belts or air bags; about $150-$200 per vehicle.

Unlike other safety features like backup cameras, which the NHTSA made mandatory beginning in 2014, the new alcohol detection technology would not be required by automakers. Instead, the technology would be offered as an upgrade to new vehicles.

“These devices have to be quick, accurate and easy to use for the automakers to put them on their platforms,” said Bud Zaouk who runs the laboratory where the technology is being developed.

Developers are still working on refining the technology to ensure accuracy. Their goal is also to allow the technology to produce blood alcohol readings in less than a second and to work for at least 10 years or 157,000 miles without calibration or maintenance.

Not surprisingly, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has expressed its support for the new technology. Colleen Sheehey-Church, president of MADD, addressed an audience at NHTSA.

“This is the future,” she said, gesturing toward a vehicle equipped with prototype detection gear, “when drunk drivers will be unable to drive their cars. If this technology was available in 2004, my son, Dustin, might be alive today.”

Sheehey-Church’s son died in the back seat of a car when the driver  who was drunk drove into a river in 2004.

In all that I’ve heard and read about the new technology, the NHTSA has yet to address some glaring problems.

Unlike an ignition interlock device, which is intended to only detect the blood alcohol content of the driver, the passive alcohol detection devices will be detecting alcohol located in the air of the vehicle whether it’s coming from the driver’s seat, passenger’s seat, or even the back seats.

If such is the case, what’s the point of having a designated driver? In fact, this is just the tip of the iceberg of questions yet to be addressed.

Will the technology detect alcohol coming from something other than a drunk driver such as mouthwash, perfumes, or hand sanitizer? Will bartenders have to shower and change clothes before heading home after a shift? Will the technology work with open windows? What about convertibles or motorcycles?

If you ask me, let’s just focus on self-driving cars to reduce drunk driving.


Can I Trick a Breathalyzer?

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

One of the more common questions I get regarding breathalyzers is “Can I do anything to trick the breathalyzer?”

Although it is true that breathalyzers are, by themselves, inaccurate, many people are mistake when they believe that they can trick a breathalyzer into producing a lower reading. In fact, many of the “tricks” that people believe will lower the breathalyzer will have no effect on the reading or may actually increase the reading.

Here are some of the more common methods used by people in trying trick the breathalyzer and their effects on the breath results.

Burping into the Breathalyzer:

This trick is based on the mistaken belief that gas from the stomach contains less alcohol in it than air from the lungs. However, according to a 1992 study from the University of Wisconsin, belching into the breathalyzer had no effect on the blood alcohol content reading.

Use Breath Spray or Mouthwash:

Both breath sprays and mouthwashes contain alcohol. Although the breathalyzer is intended to test the air which comes from deep in the lungs, it can also collect air from the mouth as well. Thus, using a breath spray or a mouthwash could increase the blood alcohol reading than what it would otherwise have been.

Sucking a Penny:

The belief is that the metals of a penny will react with the alcohol causing a breathalyzer reading to be so high that there is no conclusion other than that the breathalyzer was malfunctioning. The air that is exhaled into the breathalyzer comes from deep within the lungs. This air is called alveolar air. The copper located in the mouth would not affect the alcohol content found in the alveolar air. This was confirmed by Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters. In a 2003 episode, the hosts Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman tested this trick and busted it. The pennies had no effect on the breathalyzer.

Eating your Underwear:

Yes, you read that correctly. David Zurfluh, an 18-year-old from Stettler, Alberta, Canada ripped the crotch out of his underwear and stuffed it into his mouth in the hopes that he could reduce the reading on the breathalyzer. Zurfluh has not been the only one. Others have made the same mistake of believing that fabric in the mouth from articles of clothing will absorb the alcohol in the mouth, thus reducing the blood alcohol content reading. As I previously said, the air that is exhaled in the breathalyzer comes from deep in the lungs and fabric in the mouth will not will not affect the reading.

Drinking Caffeine:

Many people believe that they can sober up by drinking coffee. When someone who has been drinking alcohol then drinks caffeine, they are only attempting to make themselves more alert or energized. Being alert has no effect on a person’s blood alcohol content which is what the breathalyzer tests for.

Holding your Breath:

According to the study, “How Breathing techniques Can Influence the Results of Breath-Alcohol Analysis,” holding your breath for 30 seconds before blowing into a breathalyzer can increase the blood alcohol content reading by 15.7 percent.


The least well known trick is the only one which has been shown to reduce the blood alcohol content reading of breathalyzers. According to the same study above, hyperventilating for 20 seconds prior to taking a breath test reduced the blood alcohol content reading of the breathalyzer by 10.6 percent. Simply put, the hyperventilating DUI suspect is replacing the alcohol gas located in the lungs with fresh air.


$100 for Reporting a Drunk Driver

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

It goes without saying that there are more drunk drivers on the road during the holiday season. Some counties like those in Southern California are increasing patrols and DUI checkpoints. Palm Beach County, however, is offering a $100 reward for reporting a drunk driver as part of its holiday DUI crackdown.

“It gives law enforcement additional eyes on the road,” said the spokeswoman for the Safety Council of the Palm Beaches, Donna Bryan. “Everyone should have an interest in getting impaired drivers off the roads because it could be someone who hits your loved one.”

Palm Beach’s Mobile Eyes program has been operating since 2001 and has reportedly led to hundreds of DUI arrests. But recently, the program was promoted as a way to earn a little extra holiday cash this season.

To most this seems like a win-win situation. Drunk drivers are taken off the road and the person responsible for the arrest earns themselves $100 for the holidays.

So what’s the problem with rewards for reporting drunk drivers?

I’m sure Palm Beach County officials report exactly how many actual drunk drivers are arrested as a result of the program. But I highly doubt they report how many innocent people were stopped and investigated for a possible DUI as a result of the program.

Although well-intentioned, the program encourages people to call 911 on drivers who may or may not be driving drunk simply because there is the possibility of receiving $100. And, what’s more, these people have absolutely no personal knowledge that the driver is actually drunk.

Unfortunately, people are not reporting drunk driving. They’re reporting driving errors, any of which can be interpreted as drunk driving. Everybody makes mistakes while driving. In fact, it might be fair to say that no driving excursion is flawless. This necessarily means that everyone on the road is a target of Mobile Eyes and anyone can be arrested on suspicion of DUI simply because someone else could make $100 for reporting a mistake.

Ok, so someone calls 911 to report a possible drunk driver. Does the tip give law enforcement the right to stop a driver when the officers, themselves, saw nothing to indicate that the driver is driving drunk?

According to the United States Supreme Court, the answer is yes.

In the case of Navarette v. California, the United States Supreme Court held that an anonymous tip gives law enforcement the authority to pull someone over on suspicion of driving under the influence. This is true even though it is impossible to verify the reliability of the tip and the officer has not witnessed any driving that would indicate intoxication.

In his dissent, Justice Scalia voiced the same concerns I expressed above:

“Drunken driving is a serious matter, but so is the loss of our freedom to come and go as we please without police interference. To prevent and detect murder we do not allow searches without probable cause or targeted Terry stops without reasonable suspicion. We should not do so for drunken driving either. After today’s opinion all of us on the road…are at risk of having our freedom of movement curtailed on suspicion of drunkenness, based upon a phone tip, true or false, of a single instance of careless driving.”

After the Navarette decision, not only is it acceptable to assist law enforcement in violating the Constitution, now in Palm Beach County, we’re actually rewarding people for doing so.



Can a Personal Breathalyzer Prevent a California DUI?

Monday, December 15th, 2014

Many people are arrested on suspicion of a California DUI after only having one or two drinks. Could those arrests have been prevented if the arrestees knew their blood alcohol content was only, say at a 0.09 percent blood alcohol content and they waited a little while before getting behind the wheel? Maybe, if they had their own breathalyzer. 

I’ve written several posts on the availability of different types of personal breathalyzers from single-use disposable breathalyzers to breathalyzer phone apps. People can, however, also purchase regular multiple use breathalyzers. Some are attached to keychains and tend to be low-quality novelty items. Others are a more expensive and are of a quality similar to what law enforcement uses.

Not surprisingly, quality breathalyzers will, in most cases, cost well more than inferior breathalyzers. Costs will vary between $15 and several hundred dollars. Breathalyzers under $50, and those coming on key chains have questionable accuracy from the start and accuracy continues to decrease after several uses.

Unlike novelty breathalyzers, quality breathalyzers will be backed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means that the FDA conducts research to confirm that the breathalyzer does what its literature says it does.

So is it still possible for a person to get arrested on suspicion of a California DUI even if their personal breathalyzer indicates that they are under the legal limit?

Of course it’s possible.

I can’t even count how many times I’ve told my readers that breathalyzers, even the high-quality breathalyzer, are inaccurate. Almost all quality breathalyzers, like those the police use, require calibration after repeated use to ensure accuracy. Some products allow for owners to calibrate themselves and some require that the breathalyzer be sent to the manufacturer for calibration. Heavily used and non-calibrated breathalyzers will likely not be accurate.

It is possible for a person’s blood alcohol content to continue to rise after a breathalyzer reading, especially if they’ve only recently stopped drinking. Therefore, it is also possible for a person to have a blood alcohol content of 0.07 when they leave the bar (and when they test themselves) and a 0.09 after they’ve been driving for a while. If that is the case, you can still be arrested and charged for a California DUI.

Lastly, a person does not necessarily need to be above a 0.08 blood alcohol content to be arrested and charged with a California DUI. A person can be arrested and charged with a California DUI if they are above a 0.08 percent blood alcohol content or if they are “under the influence.” In other words, you can be a 0.07 percent, but if an officer determines that you cannot safely operate a vehicle as a sober person could, you can still be arrested and charged with a California DUI.  A breathalyzer may determine if you are under the legal limit, but it cannot determine whether you are “under the influence.”

The only foolproof way to prevent a California DUI is to not drive after drink anything. However, if a personal breathalyzer can help prevent a DUI, I’m all for it.


“Physician, Heal Thyself”

Thursday, May 29th, 2014

I've posted repeatedly in the past of the hypocritical double standard that pervades the criminal justice system when it comes to drunk driving.  Members of law enforcement, prosecution and the judiciary are quick to accuse and severely punish those suspected of DUI.  Cops have quota systems and rewards for high DUI arrests; prosecutors seek promotions for winning convictions; judges and legislators fear being accused of "soft" on drunk drivers when election time nears.  

And yet….these same people are commonly guilty of the same crimes about which they act so righteously – and are all too often protected by the system.  See, for example, The DUI Double Standard, Guarding the GuardiansThe DUI Double Standard Continues, When Judges Judge Judges and "I'm a Judge, Bro".

And in yesterday's news…

Third Florida County Judge in Seven Months Faces Charges

Broward County, FL.  May 28 (NBCNews) – Three Broward County judges have been arrested on DUI charges in the last seven months. The rash of arrests has sent shockwaves through the courthouse and prompted the county’s top public defender to say something is wrong with the judicial culture in the county.

“When people ascend to the bench and put that robe on, it’s very common that they start to believe that they are bigger than the law; they are above the law; they are the law,” said Broward County public defender Howard Finkelstein. “Is that happening in Broward? I’ve seen that happen here for many years, decades. I thought it was getting better. I still think it’s getting better, but this is a very big bump in the road.”

The latest arrest came Tuesday when Judge Lynn Rosenthal of the 17th Judicial Circuit was arrested after hitting a parked, unmarked patrol car in a Fort Lauderdale courthouse parking lot. Judge Rosenthal told deputies she was also forced into a guardrail on I-595 on her way to work before the parking lot accident, but deputies said video disputed that report…

Just last week, fellow Broward County Judge Gisele Pollack was suspended from the bench without pay after she was arrested on DUI charges earlier this year following a car crash.

In November, long-time Broward Judge Cynthia Imperato was arrested for DUI in Boca Raton…

Want to bet whether this judge, like so many other judges, cops, prosecutors and legislators, will get nothing more than a slap on the wrist — if that?

(Thanks to Matthew Kensky.)