NJ Drunk Driving News: NBC Today Show Exposé Shines the Light on Smartphone Breathalyzer Apps

Most anyone who has been formally charged with driving under the influence of alcohol here in the Garden State is probably familiar with the way in which local or state police obtain evidence of intoxication, that is, the use of a breathalyzer machine to determine a driver’s blood-alcohol concentration, or BAC. For many people convicted of DWI, the machine most popular with law enforcement agencies across New Jersey is the Alcotest 7110 manufactured by Draeger Industries.

This particular BAC detecting tool, was first put into service more than 10 years ago. For anyone who has attempted to fight a DWI charge by calling into question the accuracy of the Alcotest device, it may not be a surprise to hear that a 2008 case heard by the New Jersey Supreme Court resulted in ruling that held the Alcotest 7110 to be scientifically reliable (State v. Chun, 194 N.J. 54 [2008]).

It could be said that ever since the police began using the first breathalyzer machines, some drivers have likely wondered if they, too, could measure their BAC levels before getting behind the wheel of a car or truck. The problem even into the 21st century is that the breathalyzer machines used by the police may be portable, but they are hardly convenient devices to carry on one’s person state. Still, having a personal device that could warn a motorist that he or she is legally drunk is something that many people want to have – and do have now, thanks to smartphone technology.

There are several devices and smartphone apps that are touted as delivering the same BAC accuracy as those machines used by police forces nationwide. Recently the people at NBC did a mostly non-scientific evaluation of several top-rated breath testing devices and apps. What they found was very interesting.

According to NBC reporter Jeff Rossen, more and more drivers are opting to rely on personal and portable devices to test their BAC before sliding behind the wheel of an automobile. In fact, these handy units, most small enough to fit in a jacket pocket or purse, run as little as $50 to buy. They typically plug right into a motorist’s smartphone, after which a simple blow of one’s breath and the individual’s BAC is ready to view in seconds. But, are they as accurate as one would hope?

Billed as devices that can help drivers make smart decisions, it’s easy to imagine that any inaccuracy could provide a person with a false sense of sobriety to the point of being legally drunk on the road. While the manufacturers generally state that their products provide accurate information on which a driver can make his or her own decision whether or not to operate a vehicle, police departments around the country believe that these relatively simple machines can be unreliable. In fact, the NBC report indicated that some products can actually lead to drunken driving.

The products tested included three popular BAC apps: the Alcohoot, BACtrack Mobile, and Breathometer. To lend some credibility to the test, producers at NBC brought in several members of the New Jersey State Police to help balance the comparison between the handheld, personal breathalyzer devices. Some of the results surprised many people.

As part of its “social experiment,” NBC had several drinking-age drivers imbibe a number of alcoholic beverages and then blow into the competitors’ machines, as well as the state trooper’s official breathalyzer. After having six drinks over the course of an afternoon, one participant blew a BAC reading of 0.175 percent on the official police machine, but the Breathometer showed her as having only a 0.06 BAC. In effect, the smartphone app cleared her as under the legal limit, yet the police breathalyzer showed she was more than twice the limit — and we all know which machine a court would likely listen to.

For the same woman, the Alchohoot app registered a 0.16 BAC reading, almost as much as the state troopers’ machine. While the BACtrack Mobile app showed a much more conservative 0.21 percent BAC — way over the legal limit, but about 20 percent higher than that of the legally accepted police breathalyzer. A look at the video accompanying the article gives a better look at the test, but the result of this casual product test would lead most people to be wary of the accuracy of these inexpensive personal breathalyzer apps.

As New Jersey DWI and drug DUI defense attorneys, I and my colleagues know that one of the more surefire ways to avoid a drunk driving summons is not to drink and drive in the first place. Obviously, the main problem is verifying that one’s BAC from these devices is accurate. If there is doubt either way, then it may be prudent to hand the car keys to a sober driver and be driven home. In the end, there is less risk to playing it safe than to tempt fate and drive drunk.

Can Breathalyzer phone apps tell you whether you’re legally drunk?; Today.com; August 14, 2014