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Crime and Courts

CDOT invested nearly $1 million in federal funds to explore personal breathalyzers as an antidote to drunken driving. Can technology win out?

Free and discounted devices have added to an already receptive Colorado market, but some remain skeptical of their role.

Mike Linquist, a 32-year-old Lafayette IT consultant, holds the white BACtrack breathalyzer in his left hand while running its smartphone app on his iPhone. He got the device for half price through CDOT and the manufacturer. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)
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Mike Linquist was hanging out at a friend’s house last summer with some buddies, watching a game and drinking beer, although he allows that “there may have been some shots involved.”

It got late and most of the friends left. Linquist crashed in a spare room.

The next morning, rested but hung over, he reached into his pocket for his car keys and found the breathalyzer he’d purchased for half price in a deal offered by Colorado’s transportation department and a leading manufacturer. Just for grins, he blew into it.

“I thought I should be fine because I’d slept,” he said.

He blew a 0.08 blood-alcohol concentration — under the influence by Colorado law.

“That’s when I started researching,” said Linquist, a 32-year-old Lafayette IT consultant. “I blew into the thing thinking it wasn’t accurate. But then I tried to recollect how much I drank, how much time had passed. And it was insane. It turned out I could’ve been exactly at that level. It’s crazy to think how many people are probably driving over the limit just the next morning, heading to work at 7 a.m.”

That’s the sort of epiphany the Colorado Department of Transportation envisioned when in 2016 it partnered with manufacturer BACtrack and first distributed 225 smartphone breathalyzers to random Denver-area individuals who agreed to provide feedback on the experience. The following year, CDOT introduced the devices to 475 first-time DUI offenders in an effort to reduce impaired driving.

And this year, it continued its campaign by selling at a discount or giving away more than 3,000 breathalyzers and analyzing anonymous user data that, among other things, shows Colorado to be among the national leaders in adopting the devices.

Mike Linquist’s iPhone app for his BACtrack breathalyzer instructs him to take a deep breath to register a reading. Linquist bought the device for half price through a CDOT partnership with the manufacturer. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

“What we’re trying to do is change the social norm around drinking and driving in this country by giving people a device that allows them to make smarter and better informed decisions,” CDOT spokesman Sam Cole said. “At one point in history, we had vehicles with no speedometer in them. People had to guess if they were being safe with speed. Now, most people rely on how they feel (after drinking), they rely on a guess, they rely on subjective cues to help keep them safe.”

Can technology change all that?

Statistics spell out the stakes clearly and consistently.

In the past 10 years, the rate of alcohol-related impairment has hovered roughly between one-quarter and one-third of all fatal crashes in Colorado. (Drug involvement pushes the average closer to one-third.)

A September CDOT survey of 360 Coloradans age 21 and up, from a geographically and demographically diverse sample, found that few think they can drive safely under the influence. But 41 percent of those interviewed were unaware of the DUI limit (0.08 percent blood-alcohol) and 63 percent didn’t know the driving-while-ability-impaired limit (0.05 percent BAC).

More than half had no idea how many drinks it would take them to reach those limits, or how long it would take them to fully recover. Among alcohol consumers, only 3 percent said they owned a breathalyzer, about one-third didn’t know they are publicly available and over half had never considered owning one.

And while more than half said they’d always use a breathalyzer while drinking, if they had one, only 20 percent felt that the device would effectively curb drunken driving.

Although law enforcement and the courts have long employed breathalyzer technology to detect and correct those who drive under the influence, introducing the devices into social culture comes with challenges.

Manufacturer BACtrack, which claims a 70 percent national market share, has fought the perception that owning such a device carries negative connotations. Although basic, less precise and reliable models are available for around $30, the company has sought to capitalize on the fascination with smartphone technology and apps that make using a breathalyzer more appealing, said Stacey Sachs, the San Francisco-based firm’s vice president of marketing.

“People still feel like there’s a stigma, that they don’t need it, it’s for alcoholics,” Sachs said. “All kinds of excuses. We look at it like a Fitbit — whether you want to exercise more or check your BAC and not drive. Connecting that to a smartphone made it more interesting to people. We’ve tried to make them smaller and cooler and acceptable to use.”

Linquist agrees that the devices, which fit easily in the palm of the hand, still fall short of fitting comfortably into social situations. He bought his at the urging of his father and sister, who also took advantage of the CDOT program that offered the $100 devices for $50.

After blowing into his BACtrack breathalyzer, Mike Linquist shows his reading — zeros — indicating no alcohol in his blood. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

Although he envisioned using the breathalyzer primarily to gauge his alcohol intake when he ventured out with friends, he started by syncing it to his iPhone and experimenting with the app at home to see if he could correlate BAC numbers to the way he felt after a given number of drinks. In fact, the app even allows a user to guess their blood-alcohol number before testing, and estimates how long it will take for their body to eliminate the alcohol and blow a zero.

Linquist learned, to his surprise, that he tended to feel more in control than his BAC indicated — confirmation that just feeling competent to drive didn’t jibe with reality. That reinforced the lesson learned last year, when he left a bar feeling fine, but got stopped after rolling through a stop sign and was tagged with a DUI.

“Ever since I got my DUI, friends and family also have been more cautious and aware of the situation,” he said. “Before, we never thought about this, ever. We always went by our physical reactions. If we felt good, we’d drive.”

Although he makes advance plans for a ride home now, he still sees value in using the device to keep tabs on his alcohol consumption.

“It’s more like a personal thing,” he said. “I like to gauge, I want to get to the point where I find a baseline that’s good for me. I’m testing the waters now.”

When he did carry the device out to bars, he would suggest friends test themselves. Typically, they came away shocked that their BAC registered above the legal limit — sometimes way above. The app also prompts a call to Uber for a ride-share. But it’s not designed to be a determining factor on whether or not the user could be cited for DUI.

Although some bars have been known to provide breathalyzers to patrons as a safety measure, CDOT’s Cole said, anecdotes about customers using them for competitive drinking games, in part, led to the conclusion that owning a personal device made more sense.

“In a bar atmosphere where people are partying and getting drunk, they’d sometimes use the device to see how drunk they are,” he said. “We’d like people to purchase them, so they’d have skin in the game, and have that as their own item.”

After testing his BAC with the breathalyzer, Mike Linquist reads the results, which include a description of how he should be functioning based on the reading, which was zero. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

The higher-end devices claim accuracy on a par with police units. But when it comes to their effectiveness, both the Colorado State Patrol and Mothers Against Drunk Driving remain circumspect, welcoming use of the devices as an informational tool but cautioning against driving any time after consuming alcohol.

“What we don’t want is people to rely on a single piece of equipment to determine whether or not they can or should be driving,” said Trooper Josh Lewis. “You need to have a sober driver and an ultimate plan in place. This could be one part, one tool, but ultimately they still have to make the decision.”

That decision, added Fran Lanzer, executive director of MADD Colorado, often revolves around whether the individual is willing to leave their car, find an alternative way home and deal with the attendant logistical complications. The organization’s feedback to CDOT on the breathalyzer campaign emphasized that the message to plan ahead for a safe ride home should be included — which it was.

“While we may be choosing different tactics,” Lanzer said, “they’re a great partner for us.”

Linquist discovered it was one thing to use his new gadget among friends and another to carry it in public.

“If you’re carrying one around, people place a label on you, like, ‘Why is he trying to track that?’” Linquist said. “So I’d use it discreetly, not sitting at a bar and blowing into the thing where everyone could notice.”

However they use them, Coloradans employ the devices more than four times the national average per capita rate, tops in the U.S., according to anonymous user data collected over the past two years via smartphone-linked devices from CDOT.

BACtrack reported that its Colorado sales also led the nation in 2017-18, while sales via Amazon.com ranked second per capita — and first the year before. Those sales figures do not include devices sold or distributed during the statewide education campaign.

CDOT’s investment in the breathalyzer campaign, close to $1 million over the past three years, came from money provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in its efforts to reduce driving under the influence.

The 50 percent discount has expired, but BACtrack offers a 20 percent discount to Colorado residents until Nov. 15.

Mike Linquist, in his home office, prepares to blow into his BACtrack breathalyzer while getting instructions from the app on his iPhone. (Kevin Simpson, The Colorado Sun)

Getting their product in front of consumers plus engaging in partnerships with agencies like CDOT fuels BACtrack’s marketing push, Sachs said, but there’s still “a long way to go” before the devices gain broad acceptance. But at the same time, the technology landscape continues to change rapidly.

“We still have a way to go to get them in everyone’s hands, but we’re making great strides,” she added. “They were giant, bulky things, people thought you didn’t use them unless you had an alcohol problem.”

The smartphone version of the breathalyzer launched in 2013. The company currently is developing a device that can be worn on the wrist as a stand-alone strap or incorporated into an Apple Watch band that measures alcohol released through the skin.

MADD Colorado’s Lanzer expresses optimism about auto-related technology. Ride share services themselves are essentially technological advances, he said. And ignition-locking technology is on the cusp of introducing features built into cars — a breath-analyzing laser device in the steering column or a touch-based device in the start button — that could cut down on bad decisions.

“It’s both a scary and a hopeful time when we look at traffic safety,” he said. “Impaired fatalities are up in Colorado, and at the same time technology has come on board so we can begin solving the issue and saving more lives. There’s a lot going on.”


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