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Testing Breathalyzers: Does an Over-the-counter Model Really Work?

Published: May. 20, 2015 at 3:56 PM EDT
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Going out for drinks is something many adults in the Valley enjoy, but that presents a challenge. How do you have a good time, but then get home safely?

You can call a cab, bring a designated driver or use an over-the-counter breathalyzer.

In this exclusive report, WHSV put one of these devices to the test to see how it measured up to what police are using to keep people safe.

"It's basically an epidemic," said Sgt. Brian Edwards with the Waynesboro Police Department about drunk driving. He said sharing the news of a drunk driving death is never easy.

"I, personally, have done them where the person has sobbed uncontrollably for an hour," continued Edwards.

In 2015 alone, 25 drivers were arrested in Rockingham County for drunk driving, while 24 were arrested in Waynesboro, seven in Augusta County and three in Staunton.

One of those arrests was Kenneth L. Barber, who was charged with driving under the influence in a crash that killed a mother and daughter in Staunton in April.

A tragedy that shook the whole community including the victims' friends. "What happened isn't good, and it could've been prevented," said Lydia Rowe, who knew the victims.

It's this kind of tragedy that new, over-the-counter breathalyzers aim to prevent. You may have seen them sold at gas stations across the Valley.

To see how one of these breathalyzers compares to what police use, I went to Barren Ridge Vineyards.

In Virginia, some red wines have an alcohol content of about 12 percent. While at Barren Ridge, I drank the Viognier, a white wine, which has an alcohol content of about 13.5 percent.

Wine experts said it takes about three glasses for someone of my size to get close to the legal limit of .08 BAC.

After having a few drinks, my designated driver took me to the Waynesboro Police Department to compare the breathalyzers.

Edwards said some drunk drivers act more confident in their ability to drive than they should. "'I'll be okay.' I think that's probably the most famous phrase for most drunk drivers before they're arrested; before they have an accident or before they get killed themselves."

That's why Barren Ridge employees say they always recommend visitors have a plan to get home safely after drinking.

Once we arrived at the police department, it was time to begin the test.

The instructions for the over-the-counter version say that if you can't read these instructions, you should not be driving.

After breathing into it and waiting three minutes, I learned the result.

Those green crystals just past the black line show that I am over the legal limit and should not be driving.

Next, Sgt. Chris Hilliard with the Waynesboro Police Department gave me an Alco-Sensor test, using the same device he would use after pulling someone over. I blew a .14, which is .06 above the legal limit in Virginia.

With results like that, Hilliard gave me some follow-up tests.

He put me through the same evaluation he would do to an actual suspected drunk driver. Despite my best efforts, I failed.

Clearly the breathalyzer I bought at the store was on to something, leaving the police with one option, "arrest" me.

"Drunk driving arrest is probably one of the most satisfying arrest a police officer can make," said Edwards. That's because when they bring someone off the road and into here for more tests and some jail time, they know they're saving lives.

"It pushes us all the time to know that hopefully getting that drunk driver off the road is the one that is going to kill someone," continued Edwards.

Fortunately, they're getting some help. A group of determined James Madison University students offers safe rides for their classmates on the weekend.

These safe drivers said despite their efforts, they still see drunk drivers on the streets.

"There are 160 of us every weekend that dedicate a night to saving peoples' lives and preventing this from happening and it's almost like a slap in the face," said Justin Porter, a driver with Safe Rides

To know that despite the warnings, people in our area still put their lives and others at risk even when these breathalyzers, designated drivers, and the costly threat of jail time should be preventing the problem.

"There are so many people who wash their hands and say, 'well, I'm here, so I'm safe.' Someone else could be the victim," said Edwards.

So, unless you want to end up jail, don't drink and drive.

What does .08 really mean?

Blood Alcohol Concentration (g/dL) Typical Effects Predictable Effects on Driving
.02
  • Some loss of judgment
  • Relaxation
  • Slight body warmth
  • Altered mood
  • Decline in visual functions
  • Decline in ability to perform two tasks at the same time
.05
  • Exaggerated behavior
  • May have loss of small-muscle control
  • Impaired judgment
  • Usually good feeling
  • Lowered alertness
  • Release of inhibition
  • Reduced coordination
  • Reduced ability to track moving objects
  • Difficulty steering
  • Reduced response to emergency driving situations
.08
  • Muscle coordination becomes poor
  • Harder to detect danger
  • Judgment, self-control, reasoning and memory are impaired
  • Concentration
  • Short-term memory loss
  • Speed control
  • Reduced information processing capability
  • Impaired perception
.10
  • Clear deterioration of reaction time and control
  • Slurred speech, poor coordination and slowed thinking
  • Reduced ability to maintain lane position and brake appropriately
.15
  • Far less muscle control than normal
  • Vomiting may occur
  • Major loss of balance
  • Substantial impairment in vehicle control, attention to driving task and visual and auditory information processing