It wasn't your typical happy hour.
Keith Nothacker had invited reporters to join him at a bar in West Hollywood, California. After a drink and appetizers, he offered the use of his BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer to help people decide if they could drive safely or should sit and eat more pizza.
The portable breathalyzer will also tell you when to expect your BAC to drop enough to drive and when you'll be completely sober. Users can share results on social media or keep them private.
"We're convinced this is something that can save lives," Nothacker says.
Smartphone breathalyzers like BACtrack Mobile, whose developers say is the first to wirelessly connect with a smartphone via Bluetooth, are the newest generation of options to help drivers figure out when they're impaired and running the risk of a DUI charge.
Advocates say the new BAC devices will replace the lower-tech options such as the standard DMV chart that estimates BAC based only on weight, number of drinks, time elapsed and sometimes gender, but which can't account for factors such as food intake and individual responses to alcohol.
Nothacker and others who make the new-generation smartphone breathalyzers say their technology also goes beyond the array of smartphone apps such as R-U-Buzzed?, Last Call and DrinkTracker because those apps don't get a breath sample.
Why the Business Is Booming Now
Even though overall highway fatalities have declined, accidents involving alcohol-impaired drivers are still a big problem. Nearly 10,000 people a year in the U.S. are killed in alcohol-related crashes, according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Another 173,000 are injured annually.
According to FBI estimates, 1.2 million drunk driving arrests occurred in 2011, but only one of 80 impaired driving trips results in an arrest. To reduce that toll, the NTSB issued a report in May, 2013, listing a host of recommendations, such as stiffer enforcement of existing laws.
Lowering the legal limit from the current 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent was ''the one that grabbed the most attention," said Peter Knudson, an NTSB spokesperson.
Now, Knudson says, ''it's up to the States."
Lowering the previous legal limit of 0.10 percent to the current 0.08 percent, Knudson says, took years to pass in all 50 states. In much of the world, the BAC limit is already 0.05 percent or even lower.
As tolerance for tipsy drivers declines even more, the new devices will become essential, advocates say.
"We can show that owning a breathalyzer leads to lower instances of impaired driving," Nothacker says. Just having a device, he says, moves the issue to ''front of mind."
However, some independent researchers have found the stand-alone phone apps to be inaccurate, and research on the newer breath tester/app combination devices is sparse. Some experts worry that the new devices may actually backfire, encouraging friends to compete for the highest BAC or giving a false sense of security if the reading isn't accurate.
The Tech Story
The newer breathalyzers typically use fuel-cell technology, the same type used in professional-grade devices. The fuel-cell sensors oxidize the alcohol in the breath sample and produce an electric current. The higher the level of alcohol in the breath (which reflects BAC), the stronger the current. The breathalyzer measures the current to estimate the BAC.
Users of the BACtrack Mobile first download the free smartphone app, available for the iPhone and Android devices. Once the device is paired via Bluetooth, the drinker is ready to blow a breath sample.
On-screen prompts tell users when to blow. "You blow for approximately 5 seconds," Nothacker says. Results are displayed on the phone screen. Users can pass the device around to friends, logging multiple results and changing the disposable mouthpiece.
BACtrack Mobile is $99.99 and its newer model, BACtrack VIO Smartphone keychain breathalyzer, is $49.99. They're sold on the company site and at Amazon, Best Buy and other retailers. The manufacturer says that BACtrack Mobile will work with the Apple Watch when it becomes available.
BACtrack isn't the only option. Another mobile breathalyzer device, Alcohoot, launched in December, 2013, says company CEO Christopher Ayala. It also uses fuel-cell technology and pairs a smartphone or other mobile device via an app. It's compatible with all iOS devices and Android smartphones, he says. It costs $99.99 and is sold online, as well as at Target, Bloomingdale's and Best Buy sites and stores, he says.
Breathometer's Breeze, at $99.99, pairs with iPhones and some Android-based phones. It's sold online and at Best Buy.
High Tech, but How Accurate?
The makers of the breathalyzers with smartphone apps all claim a high degree of accuracy if used according to instructions.
For instance,BACtrack Mobile Breathalyzer's accuracy is plus or minus 0.005 from the correct lab value, Nothacker says, citing the results of company studies. "If you get a 0.08 result, it could be 0.075 to 0.085,'' he says.
Testing the Testers
The FDA has changed the regulations about personal alcohol breath testers and other medical devices. In 2011, the agency proposed that the devices be exempt from pre-market notification requirements, according to Jennifer Corbett Dooren, an FDA spokesperson. Currently, device makers need to register the devices annually with the FDA, explain what the devices do and pay an annual fee. Most breathalyzer devices need periodic recalibration.
"For BACtrack Mobile, we suggest a recalibration once a year," Nothacker says. Users ship the device to the company and pay $19.99 for the service. Alcohoot suggests recalibration after every 1,000 tests or every year, whichever comes first, and charges $30, Ayala says.
Breathometer's Breeze does not need recalibration, according to company information, but the battery needs to be replaced after about 18 months or 2,000 uses.
Phone App BAC: Experts Weigh in
How much faith should people have in the stand-alone phone apps or BAC charts versus breathalyzers paired with smartphones?
If used properly, the new breathalyzers with phone apps are definitely more dependable than the familiar DMV charts, says Lenny Frieling, a criminal defense attorney in Boulder, Colorado.
"People get into trouble with the charts," he says, because they can't take individual responses to alcohol into account. However, he would advise drinkers to think of the mobile breathalyzer ''as a tool, not a decision maker."
Ryan C. Smith, Ph.D., a research associate at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg, Virginia, compared BAC results on drinkers when they used stand-alone phone apps and when they used breathalyzers.
"The average phone app result was off by 0.05," he says. Sometimes they underestimated; others times they overestimated.
That doesn't surprise James Lange, Ph.D., coordinator of San Diego State University's Alcohol and Other Drugs Initiatives, a community outreach and research project. "Using such a formula-based estimate is very inaccurate," he says.
Is a Phone App Plus Breathalyzer Better?
The fuel-cell technology in the smartphone breathalyzers should help accuracy, says Lange. But he can't be sure.
And he still has concerns. "If you've been drinking and you're worried enough about your alcohol levels that you would test yourself, then you're probably already impaired, regardless of the actual BAC level," he says.
"The per-se 0.08 law is intended to be high enough that almost everyone is at substantial risk if they drive at that level," he says. Risks of accidents actually begin at much lower BAC levels, says Lange.
"So if someone's been drinking and blows a 0.06, I would really worry that they would get a false sense of security," Lange says. BAC levels as low as 0.03 can begin to affect perception, according to research cited by the NTSB, and by 0.04, reaction times can suffer.
According to the California DMV, a person who weighs 129 pounds and has one drink could have a BAC of up to 0.04 even two hours later. Someone who weighs 170 could have a BAC of 0.04 an hour after one drink.
The breathalyzer devices may also spur competition among younger drinkers to blow a higher BAC, says Lange. A breathalyzer is ''useful for police to gather evidence," but not for drivers making decisions about getting home, he says.
Other Options: Designated Drivers and Cabs
Designated drivers, those traditional life savers, aren't perfect either, recent research suggests.
Adam Barry, Ph.D., now a researcher at Texas A&M University, evaluated 165 designated drivers while at the University of Florida. He found that 40 percent had alcohol in their bloodstream. Of those, nearly one in five had BACs of 0.05 or higher. That's why it's best to choose a designated driver before a group departs for the party or bar, Lange says, "or at least before you order."
The other options — a cab, Lyft or Uber car — are also easier now, especially if you have the right smartphone app. Once your BAC reaches a certain level, some apps will suggest you need a cab or a ride, and then help you arrange one.
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