Drunk Driving and the Progression of Breathalyzers

Drunk Driving & the Progression of Breathalyzers

Whenever a police officer needs to check to see how much alcohol someone has in their system, the police use a device known as a Breathalyzer. While the word Breathalyzer started out as a brand name, over time, it has come to represent the product itself. The device uses a complex chemical reaction and mathematical formula to determine just how much alcohol is in a person’s bloodstream. Over the years, police agencies all over the world have come to rely on the Breathalyzer to help keep drunk drivers off the road. How does the Breathalyzer work, and where did it come from? This well-known device actually has an interesting story behind it.

The Origins of the Breathalyzer

Testing for alcohol in the human body has been a subject of discussion since 1874, when Dr. Francis E. Anstie delivered a speech in which he insisted that the alcohol in a person’s bloodstream could be detected on their breath. Anstie had established himself as an expert in the field of the effects of alcohol consumption when he created Anstie’s Limit, which stated that the average person could consume 1.5 fluid ounces of ethanol safely before feeling any ill effects.

Despite Anstie’s insistence that alcohol could be detected on a person’s breath, police forces around the world utilized urine tests to determine if a person was legally intoxicated. It took a dissected football to start people talking about the real possibility that testing for alcohol on the breath is much more accurate than using urine tests. In 1927, a medical researcher named Emil Bogen released a report that gave the results of an experiment he did with air that included traces of alcohol and was collected in the rubber bladder of a football. When Bogen compared the amount of alcohol he found in the football bladder to similar amounts of alcohol detected with a urine test, he discovered that the air test was much more accurate. That report started a flurry of activity that eventually resulted in the modern-day Breathalyzer.

Inventors and Versions of the Breathalyzer

After reading Bogen’s report in 1927, chemist William McNally decided to put the information to practical use by creating a Breathalyzer for Chicago housewives to use to determine if their husbands had been drinking. The husbands would breathe into the device and the chemicals inside would change color if there was alcohol detected.

A British police physician repeated Bogen’s test by asking a man suspected of being intoxicated to breathe two liters of air into a football bladder. The doctor found that the defendant’s breath contained enough alcohol to be considered half the amount needed to be legally intoxicated. It was the first recorded instance of a police force utilizing a breathing device to test for alcohol.

A crude version of the Breathalyzer was invented in 1931 by Rolla Harger and called the drunkometer. It was created for roadside tests of drivers suspected of being under the influence behind the wheel. The driver would breathe into a rubber bladder, and the breath was then exposed to a solution made up of potassium permanganate that was acidified to show immediate results. While the results were quick, they were difficult to read: If there was alcohol in the motorist’s system, then the solution would change color, but the only way the officer could tell if the motorist was drunk was by trying to determine if the shade of the color meant that the motorist was legally drunk. Despite its vague results, the drunkometer was sold to police forces all over the country.

In 1954, Indiana State Police Capt. Robert Borkenstein developed a device that would measure chemical oxidation to determine the precise levels of alcohol in a person’s system. A British inventor named Tom Jones developed a digital version of Borkenstein’s invention in 1967, and the modern Breathalyzer was born.

How a Breathalyzer Works

A Breathalyzer actually works by using the person’s breath to create an electric current through a chemical reaction. Breathalyzers use one of three methods to determine the amount of alcohol in person’s system:

  • Semiconductor Oxide-Based: The blood-alcohol content (BAC) is measured by an electronic response as the breath crosses a semiconductor. These types of Breathalyzers tend to be less accurate than others.
  • Fuel Cell: The BAC is measured by oxidizing the alcohol in a person’s breath and using that chemical reaction to create an electrical current. That current is measured to determine the true BAC. These devices tend to be popular and accurate.
  • Spectrophotometer: These are the big, table-top units that the police use, and they are extremely accurate. The person breathes into the device, and the breath is analyzed by infrared light to find molecules of alcohol. As the alcohol in the breath absorbs the infrared light, the concentration of alcohol is determined and recorded.

The Impact of Breathalyzers

Breathalyzers have made it easier for police to do accurate field sobriety tests that can lead to convictions for drunk driving. It is important to note that Breathalyzer results do not lead to drunk driving convictions, as the Breathalyzers only offer an estimate of the amount of alcohol in a person’s system. The suspected drunk driver must still have their blood analyzed before they can be formally charged with driving while intoxicated.

The biggest impact that the Breathalyzer has had on law enforcement is the ability to detain a driver who is suspected of driving while intoxicated. Before the Breathalyzer, it was difficult for police to prevent someone from driving who appeared to be drunk because there was no scale to gauge their intoxication and no tool for measuring it. The Breathalyzer offers a pre-emptive tool that has helped to get drunk drivers off the road before they can injure themselves or others.

By Ted Burgess