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Drunks Get a Shot of Technology

California and a private-sector partner are working together to expedite drunk driving arrests.

by / February 29, 1996
Arresting and convicting drunk drivers in California is a complicated and time-consuming process. During a single DUI stop, officers may spend more than an hour questioning a driver and conducting a barrage of screening tests. A motorist who fails the screening is then arrested and transported to a police station for formal blood, urine or breath testing for use as evidence in court. Meanwhile, the officer is off the street where he or she is most needed.

In addition, the delay in formal testing may skew test results. Someone over the state's .08 percent blood alcohol limit when stopped, for example, may be under the limit by the time they are tested because the alcohol has had time to metabolize. Conversely, the delay often allows for a "rising blood alcohol" defense in which it is claimed that a motorist was under the legal limit when stopped, but because the alcohol they consumed was subsequently absorbed into the bloodstream, they were over the limit when tested.

Various states have employed a number of strategies to streamline the process, including equipping a police car with complex formal testing equipment (Government Technology June 1994) or, during holiday road checks, simply providing a network of drop-off points for suspected drunk drivers where they can be screened and tested while the officer returns to patrol.

Recently, the California Department of Justice (DOJ), the California Highway Patrol and a private-sector company began looking at another way to help automate the drunk-driving arrest process.

One tool used routinely during a drunk-driving stop is a breath screening device -- a small, portable machine that looks like a video-game cartridge. A suspected drunk driver blows into the device and officers get a reading of the amount of alcohol in the suspect's system. DOJ is working with Intoximeters Inc., the maker of one such device, to adapt it in such a way that the test can be accepted as evidence in court. "To be an evidential instrument, there's a set of regulations that these instruments have to meet," explained Steve Scott, California DOJ alcohol coordinator. "Right now, they haven't been approved by the Department of Health Services or met any of the other criteria."

Conducting an evidential test right at the scene of a DUI stop "would eliminate a lot of unnecessary arrests," said Jerry Cox, senior vice president of Intoximeters Inc. "There will be fewer hours spent transporting someone, testing them and finding they were below the legal limit and can't be prosecuted." Cox also explained that immediate testing would help cut down on case dismissals based on the rising blood-alcohol level defense, which police were previously unable to disprove.

According to Scott, if the breath device is approved, a drunk-driving suspect could still choose a blood or urine test. "But usually the subject is told if he blows in the machine now and it's below the limit, then he'll be released, so often they pick breath because they don't have to wait."

The revamped instrument will be attached to a notebook or laptop computer that officers will use to help speed them through the process. An officer would simply run a California mag-stripe driver license through a reader on the computer to bring up all the drivers' information. The computer would then prompt the officer to start the test and supply a readout of the results on the screen. The officer would transfer the test results over telecommunications lines to a central location for recording. "Potentially, this could also simplify reporting methods by taking the information from the computer and generating reports automatically that would print out at the station," said Cox. "That would completely free the officer from being tied down with paperwork."

DOJ is looking at other potential uses of an automated system, including sharing data with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the courts. "We're looking at a database of blood alcohol results that the DMV and courts can have instant access to," said Scott. This would be particularly useful for the DMV, which is required by the Legislature to track DUI arrests from the time of arrest until they have passed through the courts. Additionally, when police arrest a drunk driver they suspend his or her license. That driver then has 15 days to request a hearing to keep the license, which means DMV needs information on DUI arrests quickly. "Any kind of information we can provide, DMV is interested in because it's difficult for them to get that information electronically at this time," Scott explained.

While Intoximeters Inc. redesigns their device to meet these new needs, DOJ is planning to do a pilot project beginning this month to demonstrate the feasibility of using the tool for evidential purposes. If the study goes well, DOJ plans to apply for an Office of Traffic Safety grant to pay for the new equipment.

"One of the problems with developing this kind of equipment is there's so much red tape involved with regulations and getting it approved," said Scott. "Getting some of the technology accepted in court is not easy. Since this is new technology we'll have to go to court and demonstrate that the principles are accepted by the scientific community and we'll have to have experts come in and testify."

But everyone seems to agree that this process will be well worth it for the amount of time it will save. "The equipment to do this exists -- it's just that it hasn't been done yet because it's a complicated process," said Rankin Forrester, executive vice president for Intoximeters Inc. "Once it's done, it's going to be a real value in saving officer down time."

"The biggest problem right now is getting officers on the street who can prosecute DUIs, because as we all know, a police officer is expensive," said Cox. "If we could make him twice as efficient, that would be quite an improvement."


The breath analysis test is based on fuel cell technology. As Rankin Forrester, executive vice president of Intoximeters Inc., explained, "A fuel cell is basically a battery, where the electrolyte in this particular battery is alcohol. It's like a battery in a car -- if you put a volt meter on a car that had no electrolyte on it you would see no charge. If you add an electrolyte, a current is created and you would see the voltage on the meter," he said. Therefore, if you look at a fuel cell sensor when there is no alcohol on it there will be no current. But once alcohol gets put on the surface, a current is generated. "On this particular battery there is a chemical reaction that goes on on the cell's surface -- it burns the alcohol. The alcohol is converted and in that process electrons are given off -- a certain number of electrons for every molecule of alcohol. By measuring the current, we can measure the amount of alcohol that was placed on the cell's surface, and therefore the percentage of alcohol in a suspect's blood."

Forrester, who's grandfather founded the company 50 years ago, said fuel cell technology has been around for many years. "But the technology hasn't been there to do the stuff we are looking at doing here. Technology has now gotten better for the sensors, providing more accurate readings. At the same time communications technology has become readily available, which will enable us to create this kind of system."


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