History of the Breathalyzer
Posted on Feb 12, 2013 4:30pm UTC
The following article is provided by David Cantor and does not necessarily reflect the views of The Billy Skinner & Associates.
In 1927, W.D. McNally, a chemist in Chicago, invented the world’s first breathalyzer. While scientists had been experimenting with detecting alcohol in the air for years, McNally’s glass tube containing chemicals that would change color if any alcohol was present, was the first device marketed as a method to detect if person had been drinking. In 1931, Dr. Rolla N. Harger invented the Drunkometer, the first device that was practical for police officers to use for roadside testing. Dr. Harger’s Drunkometer spurred the creation of the first national drunk driving laws in 1938.
Today’s breathalyzer, invented in 1954, is actually a brand name product, one of several approved breath alcohol testing devices whose results can be used as evidence in a court of law. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration maintains a list of approved devices that law enforcement officers may use to estimate a suspected drunk driver’s blood alcohol level. Popular brands besides the Breathalyzer include the Datamaster, BACtrack, Guth 38, Alco Tec Digitox, AlcoHAWK and Lifeloc.
Law enforcement personnel use breathalyzer-type devices because the equipment is easy to transport and individuals without medical training can perform the test. The breath alcohol devices used by law enforcement officers typically uses fuel cells to detect the presence of alcohol. Persons suspected of drunk driving may be taken to a police station where larger, tabletop breathalyzers using spectrophotometer technology are used to administer a second test. Home breathalyzers, often seen in bars and restaurants serving alcohol, use semiconductor oxide sensors, a less accurate method of estimating a person’s blood alcohol level.
Any instrument that tests breath samples for blood alcohol content only provides an estimate. Only a blood test can accurately measure the amount of alcohol present in a person’s blood.
Breathalyzer tests are designed to measure breath samples from deep in the lungs. Any substance placed in the mouth for approximately 15 minutes before the test is administered could affect the results. Other factors that can affect the accuracy of breathalyzer results include improper calibration of the instrument and improper use of the instrument by law enforcement officers not adequately trained in administering the test.
Proponents claim breathalyzers are accurate when used properly and they are only one tool used to convict drunk drivers. Police testimony, blood tests and field-sobriety test results are also used to determine if a person was intoxicated while driving.