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Alcohol breath testing isn’t just for law enforcement anymore. One of the hottest tech items of 2014 was the personal breathalyzer. The small, handheld devices display the user’s breath alcohol concentration (BrAC), either on the item itself or by connecting to a smartphone app. In addition, some of the apps provide options to call a cab, contact a friend for a ride, or locate the nearest hotel.

Retail Breath Testing

Priced at $40–$150, the devices are marketed to the general public as an “accurate tool” for drinkers to track their drinking habits and evaluate their level of intoxication. And the devices are taking off in stores and online. One of the largest brands, BACtrack, states their devices are available at 15,000 retail outlets.

Questionable Accuracy

But the devices are coming under fire from a number of fronts. For starters, critics are concerned the devices could actually promote harmful levels of drinking by encouraging people to see just how drunk they can get or to try to top their friends’ readings. Some users report incorporating the devices and BrAC readings into drinking games, and some devices that connect to smartphones even include games in their apps.

Equally troubling, the accuracy of the devices is questionable. A Fortune reporter recently tried out several of the most popular models and found they gave wildly different readings—varying as much as 0.03% from one brand to another. Other media outlets have had similar findings, with personal breathalyzers providing readings below those produced by corrections-grade breath alcohol testers.

Read the Fine Print

That’s a problem when people may rely on portable breath testers as a guideline for driving. Law enforcement agencies and drunk driving advocates share that concern. The manufacturers state that people should not make driving decisions based on a reading. However, users who miss the fine print are likely to see a number of less than 0.08% as permission to get behind the wheel, even if they feel impaired.

Are personal breathalyzers a useful tool to help people better understand how their bodies react to alcohol, or could they actually encourage excessive drinking and impaired driving?

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Alison Betts

Alison Betts

Alison Betts has nearly two decades of experience as a communications professional and researcher in corporate, nonprofit, and high education settings. Betts joined SCRAM Systems in 2013 and is the Director of Marketing & Public Relations. Prior to coming to SCRAM Systems, she held research and teaching positions at universities in Arizona and Colorado. Betts has also served as a public relations professional and grant writer in the nonprofit sector, where she saw first-hand the devastating impact of alcohol and substance abuse on families and communities. Betts holds an MA in English from the University of Colorado and a Master’s in Applied Communications from the University of Denver.

5 Comments

  1. The answer is “all of the above.”

    In general consumer breathalyzer accuracy declines with price and so the cheaper the device the less reliable for decision making. A real danger of the cheaper units is that they can read either high (over .08 BAC) or low but the user has no way of knowing which reading they are getting.It’s definately buyer beware in the low price category.

    As with Scram and with Evidential breath testers the better consumer breathalyzers use platinum fuel cell technology which has been continuously improved, refined and tested over 30 years. These devices are more trustworthy than the very inexpensive semi-conductor devices…assuming they are calibrated properly and used according to the instructions. For consumers these conditions can be big “ifs.”

    We’ve all heard of people who turn personal breathalyzers into a game. The users I’ve seen who do this are already predisposed to find reasons or not to drink more and so I doubt these games take many drinkers from under the legal limit to over.

    Many users are responsible and will use a personal breathalyzer to educate themselves and others. Some law enforcement officers are vehemently opposed to personal breathalyzers and others say that anything that educates drinkers is probably helpful.

  2. Just like a coin has two sides, breathalyzers have both advantages as well as disadvantages. Breathalyzers are supposed to be used so as to to help people better understand how their bodies react to alcohol, but at the same time many compete with their friends and try to get the maximum reading on the tool.

  3. The problem with breathalyzers is they may state that you’re over the limit when you’ve only been drinking one drink on your way to a party. I know open container laws exist in most places but they’re bull… #DrinkingIsNotDrunk

    1. Ralph- True, but most breathalyzers advise you to wait 15-20 minutes before performing the breath test to prevent false-positives. Personal breathalyzers are just one more “tool in the belt” to assist with making educated decisions.

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