Breath·a·lyz·er (noun): A device used by police for measuring the amount of alcohol in a driver’s breath.
History of the Breathalyzer
In the United States, Indiana University’s Professor Rolla N. Harger conducted the first-ever “short course” on chemical tests for intoxication in 1937. Dr. Harger also introduced the Drunkometer, the first stable instrument for testing breath alcohol, in 1938. To use the drunkometer, the person being tested blew into a balloon. The air in the balloon was then released into a chemical solution. If there was alcohol in the breath, the chemical solution changed color. In 1954, Professor Robert F. Borkenstein of Indiana University invented the Breathalyzer, the first practical instrument for testing breath alcohol. Whereas the Drunkometer required re-calibration when it was moved from place to place, the Breathalyzer was highly portable (Breathalyzer.org).
But what actually is a Breathalyzer? What does it measure?
A breathalyzer is a device typically used by law enforcement to measure an intoxicated person’s blood alcohol concentration, or BAC from a breath sample. This device is often used after a car accident occurs when drinking is believed to be involved, or when someone is pulled over for suspicion of drunk-driving. After alcohol is absorbed into the bloodstream, it leaves the body in two ways. A total of about ten percent leaves through breath, perspiration, and urine. The remainder is broken down through the process known as metabolism (LifelocTechnologies). The legal limit in all states is .08 BAC. While individual responses to alcohol differ, the BAC chart below is representative of the stages and effect of alcohol at various breath alcohol concentrations (LifelocTechnologies).
What kind of Breathalyzer is used in Florida?
There are three major types of breath alcohol testing devices, and they’re based on different principles: A.) Breathalyzer – uses a chemical reaction involving alcohol that produced a color change; B.) Intoxilyzer – detects alcohol by infrared (IR) spectroscopy; and C.) Alcosensor III or IV – detects a chemical reaction of alcohol in a fuel cell. Florida uses the Intoxilyzer 8000, built by a Kentucky company called CMI Inc. (Myimprov). Below is an illustration of how it works (HowStuffWorks).
The Process of the Intoxilyzer 8000
Basic information is required before continuing the breath test such as user name and agency, time and date, last Agency Inspection date, dry gas standard cylinder lot number and expiration date, start of observation period, subject name and driver license number, subject date of birth and sex, arresting officer name and agency, time of arrest, and violation code.
There is an observation period, where the user records the time the observation period began in military time. If the observation period is less than twenty minutes prior to beginning the breath test the instrument will count down the remaining time period to continue the testing process. The appropriate agency codes are used for operator agency and arresting agency.
Deep Lung Air- The instrument is designed to analyze deep lung air as the type of breath sample which renders the most accurate breath alcohol level representing the alcohol concentration circulating in a test subject’s body. Deep lung air is breath obtained from the deepest part of the lungs, and is best obtained by having a test subject normally inhale and provide a continuous, sustained breath sample for as long as possible.
Minimum Acceptable Breath Sample– The instrument requires that a breath sample meet the following analytical criteria to ensure that the breath sample is reliable: TIME – The subject must provide a continuous breath sample of sufficient flow for at least one (1) second. VOLUME – The subject must provide a continuous breath sample of at least 1.1 liters of breath. SLOPE – The subject must provide a breath sample in which the concentration of the sample consistently rises and then levels off (FDLE).
Does it really work effectively?
A breathalyzer can be influenced by outside factors if the user is not careful. Here are a few things from BACtrack.com that could potentially cause errors in the results of a test:
- Foreign Substances: Substances present in the mouth that contain alcohol can produce false positives because of the amount of alcohol vapor they emit may be greater than the amount exhaled from the lungs. For example, some mouthwashes, breath fresheners, and toothache medicines contain alcohol and can skew readings.
- Calibration: Breathalyzers must be calibrated periodically and batteries must be replaced in order to maintain accuracy.
- Software: Breathalyzers run on special software, just as computers rely on operating systems, which can result in occasional bugs and glitches.
- Human Error: As easy as breathalyzers are to use, they still require some attention to detail.
- Consistency: To ensure accuracy, breath tests should be performed multiple times to produce a reliable result. Breathalyzers that utilize fuel cell sensor technology provide the most reliable and accurate results in repeated tests.
- Environmental Factors: False results can be triggers by the presence of paint fumes, varnish, and chemicals such as plastics and adhesives (BACtrack).
For years, people have questioned the efficiency of Breathalyzers and are now beginning to truly challenge the system and the instrument. Recently in Orange County Florida, defense attorneys have been able to show the results of the Intoxilyzer 8000 cannot be trusted in court without the company first turning over its secret source code. The company, CMI, has refused to fully disclose what it calls its trade secrets. As a result, the tests are effectively banned until they change their position (ClickOrlando). For years, juries have heard the state’s side of the argument on the use of breathalyzers in court (WeshNews). It appears now that opposing arguments are finally being heard.
This topic remains an ongoing concern not only for people who disagree with the accuracy of the instrument and the results that are formed, but there remains a group of stern believers in the Breathalyzer, such as organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Currently, there are ongoing tests and experiments on the different types of instruments and their accuracy in Florida, as well as other states. If this research is successful in finding that the Breathalyzer methods are indeed not accurate, there is a chance it may be found unreliable and excluded from use in courts.
If you have been charged with a DUI in the Tampa area of Florida, and you have concerns about the Intoxilyzer breath test, please contact DUI Attorney John Castro for assistance. Request a free consultation here, or call John at (813) 907-9807.