Officials warn against relying on home breath machines

Machines that let you test your blood alcohol at home are becoming more widely available, but officials say you shouldn't use them to see if you can drive after a party.

Police have used the devices, commonly known under the trademarked name as Breathalyzers, for many years to check the blood alcohol level of motorists and others.

More recently, home breath alcohol devices have been popping up at area stores.

Jenny Yoder, marketing executive for the Gurnee-based Quest Products Inc., says her company began producing lines of breath alcohol devices for the home market in 1999.

She said increased demand has led her company to increase the distribution of the devices. Her company's machines, for example, may be found at CVS pharmacies across the United States, and sales of the AlcoHAWK digital alcohol testers, which cost $45 to $150 (depending upon features), increased in recent years.

"You turn the machine on, and it displays a little message to blow into the unit," she said. "You blow into the funnel mouthpiece for five seconds, and it displays your alcohol level.

"We've noticed a lot of folks, especially parents, like the peace of mind of having a breath alcohol tester on hand. We have lots of folks who have friends over for a party, and guests can test themselves at the end of the night."

She said some social drinkers keep the devices on hand if they want to see whether they need to call a cab or a friend for a ride home.

"Our smallest model is thinner than a cellphone, and you can readily place it in a pocket or purse," Yoder said.

But some attorneys and justice officials have concerns about people who have been imbibing and using breath alcohol devices in the hope they aren't "drunk enough" to get behind the wheel of a car or truck.

A driver is considered intoxicated in Illinois with a blood alcohol level of 0.08 percent or greater.

"You have some people with a blood alcohol content right under 0.08 who think it is all right for them to drive," veteran defense attorney Harvey Welch said. "Some people think if you aren't at 0.08, you aren't guilty. You can be at 0.03 or 0.05, and a judge or jury can still find you under the influence."

Welch said light or social drinkers aren't capable of driving at 0.07 or 0.06.

"I don't think it is a good idea to rely on these machines to decide whether to go out and drive," Welch said.

Mike Carey, a Champaign County probation officer who works with the drug court, administers about 20 breath alcohol tests a week to people on probation who have been ordered by a judge to abstain from alcohol. He said a standard condition for probation is to submit to breath and urine analysis for drugs and alcohol.

"We have had people blow on the machines and we take their car keys away because their alcohol level is so high," Carey said.

Carey said he questions the value of home breath alcohol machines for many situations.

"But, as a parent, I might let my child blow into it if I suspected something," he said.

"For a parent who wants to check on a kid, it is a great idea," said Rantoul police Officer Eric Ruff, who administers a breath alcohol machine for that department. "For a chaperone on a field trip who wants to make sure kids aren't doing something, it's a good idea."

Champaign County State's Attorney Julia Rietz agreed that the home machines can be useful for parents to test children who shouldn't be drinking or to test loved ones who are recovering alcoholics. But she said motorists shouldn't use the machines to justify driving.

"Your blood alcohol level does not remain static," Rietz said. "As the alcohol in your system is absorbed in your blood, your (blood alcohol content) is going to increase or decrease."

Said Ruff: "I can go out to the bar in Rantoul and blow into a machine and it shows I am two points under the legal limit. I can drive, but as I continue, the intoxicants raise up. And, by the time I get to Champaign, I can be over the legal limit. Using home machines almost encourages people to drive drunk."

Rietz said the websites of all blood alcohol manufacturers she has researched contain fine print warning people against using the machines in driving situations to protect the legal liability of the companies.

"Every company somewhere on their website says that these devices do not exactly measure the blood alcohol level and should not be used to determine whether someone is legally able to drive," she said. "Something that looks like a keychain wouldn't be appropriate for use for evidence."

Yoder said her company does not recommend driving if the home machines register any positive test for alcohol.

"We recommend testing yourself again until you know your level is zero," Yoder said.

Many of the machines' packages include disclaimers. The SafeDrive Alcohol Detector sold at some local Circle K stores includes a warning that the device "is not intended to be relied upon by anyone as an indication or measure of a person's fitness or competency to operate a motor vehicle or heavy or dangerous machinery."

This story appeared in print on Feb. 5.

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