Vail Daily tests a do-it-yourself breathalyzer | VailDaily.com

Vail Daily tests a do-it-yourself breathalyzer

Sarah Mausolf
Vail CO, Colorado

Special to the Daily

AVON, Colorado ” We at the Vail Daily get all kinds of unsolicited presents in the mail. Often we’re unsure what to do with this bounty (neon yellow nail polish… thanks) but every now and then, a company sends a product that must be rushed to our official testing lab.

That’s what happened when we received BACTRACK, a do-it-yourself breathalyzer from KHN Solutions LLC in San Francisco.

This dainty, black device claimed to measure a drinker’s blood alcohol content in seconds.

Journalistic integrity demanded we test it out, and to do so, we needed two things: A police-quality breathalyzer and some drunks.

Three test subjects gathered at Loaded Joe’s on Friday night to try out the BACtrack. Before anyone started drinking, we broke out a cardboard Blood Alcohol Concentration wheel that estimates how sloshed a person gets after drinking x number of beers in just over an hour.

The wheel claimed that our first subject, a 115-pound woman, would reach a blood alcohol content of about .08 (the legal driving limit) after drinking three beers. Subject number two, a 170-pound guy, would also top out at about .08 after four beers. Our final subject, a 165-pound guy, would down five drinks to reach a BAC of about 0.10.

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And so a plan was born. Three subjects would get drunk, blow into the BACtrack, then test the results against a police breathalyzer. Bottoms up.

The directions for the BACTRACK were a buzz kill. According to the fine print, you can’t eat, drink or smoke for 20 minutes before blowing. Also a downer, it can malfunction in temperatures below 50 degrees and has to be sent back to the manufacturer for re-calibration every six months to a year.

Once our subjects were good and drunk, we met up with Avon Police Sgt. Robert Sheehan in the bar’s parking lot for a more official test. Avon police use two different types of breathalyzers. The one they use for evidence in drunk driving cases is called the Intoxilyzer 5,000. That’s a fancy machine attached to a computer that must remain in the police station.

“It’s extremely reliable and accurate,” Avon Police Chief Brian Kozak said.

Although we wanted to put our test subjects through the Intoxilyzer, state law demands that police use it for evidentiary purposes only.

That meant police would test our subjects with a portable device called the Alco-senosor III that cops use on drunk drivers or underage drinkers. The results from that breathalyzer are inadmissible in court because they can be skewed by mouth alcohol or cold temperatures.

Our tipsy subjects took turns blowing, and as it turned out, the BACtrack results were nearly identical to the readings from the police breathalyzer. Just how drunk were our subjects?

The 165-pound guy who ended up drinking four and a half beers plus a shot, blew a 0.12-percent blood alcohol level on both machines.

The 115-pound woman who downed just over three beers blew a 0.09 on the BACtrack and an almost identical 0.091 on the police breathalyzer.

The only subject with mismatched results was the 170-pound guy who drank 4 1/2 beers, but he confessed to smoking a cigarette within 20 minutes of the test. He blew a 0.082 on the cop’s breathalyzer and a 0.10 on the BACtrack.

In conclusion, the BACTRACK proved darn accurate in our unscientific test. Plus, it was highly amusing. The device sells for $79.99 on Web sites like amazon.com and target.com, but police have some words of caution for anyone investing in do-it-yourself breathalyzers.

Never use a home breathalyzer to decide whether to drive if you’ve been drinking, Kozak said.

“Someone might get a false sense of security that they’re OK to drive,” he said. “Most people know the presumptive level is 0.08, but someone can still be impaired below that level and can get arrested in court because they’re impaired.”

Plus, the presumed purpose of the device is to make sure people don’t get too wasted but for some drinkers, measuring their BAC tempts them to drink more.

“I’ve witnessed that myself where someone had their own personal device and used it kind of like a party game or something,” Kozak said. “People were trying to see who can get to the legal limit faster than others.”

High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or smausolf@vaildaily.com.

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