Rise of per­sonal breath­a­lyz­ers

Devices be­com­ing more pop­u­lar for driv­ers

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - FRONT PAGE - Karen Wein­traub

Rachel De La Mon­tanya is still haunted by that day seven years ago when she stopped on her way home from work to have a drink with friends.

They met around 5 p.m. She drank two glasses of red wine and pulled out of the park­ing lot three hours later. Al­most im­me­di­ately, she saw flash­ing lights in her rear-view mir­ror. Though she as­sumed she’d been drink­ing re­spon­si­bly, the po­lice breath­a­lyzer showed her blood al­co­hol level at .09 — above the le­gal limit of .08.

Ever since, the Mill Val­ley, Calif., hair stylist, 40, has car­ried a per­sonal breath­a­lyzer de­vice with her when she goes out with friends. She won’t get be­hind the wheel, she says, un­less her blood al­co­hol level is .03 or less.

“I don’t want to be at even half­way the le­gal limit,” says De La Mon­tanya, who adds that she has only a few drinks a few times a month and doesn’t want to risk an­other DUI. “It was ex­pen­sive and hu­mil­i­at­ing and hor­ri­ble.”

Such per­sonal breath­a­lyzer tests are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar, com­pa­nies say, as the devices get smaller, cheaper and more re­li­able.

Sci­en­tists are just be­gin­ning to ex­plore whether the devices are ef­fec­tive at stop­ping peo­ple from drink­ing and driv­ing. But anec­do­tally, users say the testers help them make bet­ter choices and stay bet­ter in­formed about their bod­ies.

Two com­pa­nies, BAC­track and Ver­tisense, which sells the Al­co­hoot line of mo­bile al­co­hol track­ers, say they have es­sen­tially two types of cus­tomers: those like De La Mon­tanya who have had a prob­lem with al­co­hol and driv­ing, and those who are just cu­ri­ous.

Clint Atkin­son, 31, a book­ing agent from San Diego, says he bought a BAC­track de­vice 18 months ago to keep bet­ter tabs on his blood al­co­hol level. Though he doesn’t have a prob­lem with al­co­hol, he says, he trusts a per­sonal de­vice bet­ter than the rule-of-thumb that it’s OK to have one to two drinks an hour.

The devices, which of­ten con­sist of a mouth­piece con­nected via Blue­tooth to a smart­phone app, work by mea­sur­ing the al­co­hol level in the breath. The ones with fuel cells — which cost about $100 — are now roughly equiv­a­lent to po­lice breath­a­lyz­ers, com­pany data show.

Drinkers are sup­posed to wait 15 min­utes and sip wa­ter be­fore test­ing so they get a true mea­sure of the al­co­hol in their blood­stream.

The devices can help drinkers know when they’ve had too much to make good de­ci­sions, says Robert Voas, a se­nior sci­en­tist with the Pa­cific In­sti­tute for Re­search and Eval­u­a­tion, a non-profit com­pany. Peo­ple are no­to­ri­ously ter­ri­ble at judg­ing their blood al- co­hol level, he says.

But, says Voas, who has stud­ied al­co­hol use for four decades, “you have to be care­ful not to use it as an ex­cuse for hav­ing an­other drink.”

Women get drunk faster than men be­cause fat — which women gen­er­ally have more of — doesn’t ab­sorb al­co­hol, he says. Weight also af­fects blood al­co­hol level, as does food eaten be­fore or while drink­ing. Coffee, he warns, does not help: “It (only) makes you a wide-awake drunk rather than an asleep one.”

And one study has demon­strated that peo­ple of­ten choose to drink and drive even if they know their blood al­co­hol limit is close to or over the limit, he says.

“One of the fea­tures of al­co­hol is it makes you feel smarter, more con­fi­dent, more ready,” Voas says.

Robert Lee­man, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Florida, is pre­par­ing to launch a study look­ing at whether col­lege stu­dents will drink less if they have a per­sonal breath­a­lyzer in their pocket.

Al­co­hol pro­vides the best “buzz” with the least morn­ing-af­ter ef­fects at a blood al­co­hol level of about .05, he says. He’s cu­ri­ous about whether peo­ple will change their drink­ing habits if they know that and have the means to mea­sure it.

An­drew Isaac, 30, of Clover City, Calif., is among the “cu­ri­ous” users. He won’t drive if he’s had any­thing more than a few sips, he says, but he likes to know how al­co­hol af­fects him. So a cou­ple of times a month when he’s out drink­ing with friends, he pulls out his BAC­track de­vice.

“The thing I like about it is you can guess be­fore­hand,” he says, adding that he’s pretty good at pre­dict­ing. “I’m usu­ally within .01.”

Isaac says he was in a bar a few weeks ago when the woman next to him no­ticed him us­ing his breath­a­lyzer de­vice and asked if she could give it a try.

She was the des­ig­nated driver for a group of friends, but her read­ing showed she had a blood al­co­hol level of .12, sub­stan­tially above the le­gal limit.

She and her friends took an Uber in­stead of driv­ing, Isaac says — which made him feel good about car­ry­ing the de­vice: “It ac­tu­ally pre­vented a com­pletely ran­dom per­son from drink­ing and driv­ing.”


BAC­track em­ployee Shawn Casey demon­strates the com­pany’s per­sonal breath­a­lyzer de­vice. The tech­nol­ogy is get­ting less ex­pen­sive and more re­li­able.

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