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A Breath of History: The Evolution of the Breathalyzer Test

Last month while reviewing a DWI case, I was reviewing the breathalyzer test results. The officer was using a new machine, and I wanted to check out the reliability and validity of this particular machine. This led to a three hour deep dive into the history of the breathalyzer machine.  I knew a brief history but this was fascinating.  Okay, maybe not for the average person…but for me…very interesting and well worth the afternoon on Wikipedia and various science websites.  To save you the three hours, here is a breakdown of what I learned.

The breathalyzer test, a staple in modern law enforcement for detecting alcohol levels in drivers, has a fascinating history dating back over a century. From its humble beginnings to its current high-tech iterations, the evolution of this device has had a significant impact on road safety and DWI enforcement.

Early Efforts:

The concept of measuring alcohol levels through breath traces its origins to the early 20th century. Dr. Emil Bogen, a British physiologist, experimented with chemical methods to detect alcohol in the breath. However, it wasn’t until 1927 that a real breakthrough occurred when Dr. Rolla N. Harger, an American chemist, developed the “Drunkometer.” This early breath testing device used a chemical reaction to determine alcohol levels in the breath. It required a driver to exhale into a balloon, which was then analyzed for alcohol content.

Enter the Breathalyzer:

The Drunkometer was an essential first step, but it had limitations. In 1954, Robert F. Borkenstein, a former Indiana state police captain, improved upon the concept with his invention, the “Breathalyzer.” This device used a chemical reaction involving a purple liquid, which changed color based on the alcohol content in the breath sample. The extent of color change was directly proportional to the alcohol concentration. The Breathalyzer was not only more accurate than its predecessors but also easier to use, making it a game-changer in DUI enforcement.  Louisiana began using the breathalyzer test in the early 1950s after it gained more acceptance in other states.

Legal Acceptance:

The reliability and effectiveness of the Breathalyzer led to its widespread adoption by law enforcement agencies. By the 1970s, most states in the United States had established legal limits for blood alcohol concentration (BAC), making it easier to determine when a driver was operating a vehicle under the influence of alcohol. The Breathalyzer became a crucial tool in prosecuting  these DWI cases.

Challenges and Improvements:

Over the years, the breathalyzer has seen numerous improvements in technology and accuracy. Advances in sensor technology, software algorithms, and data analysis have enhanced its precision. However, challenges related to calibration, maintenance, and potential user error have also been highlighted, leading to occasional legal disputes over the results of breathalyzer tests.  At our law firm, we look at each brand and machine used by the officer in our client’s case to makes the reliability and results are accurate across the industry standard.

Digital Era and Beyond:

In recent years, digital breathalyzers have gained popularity. These handheld devices offer greater portability and convenience, allowing individuals to monitor their alcohol levels in real-time. Smartphone apps paired with portable breathalyzers have also entered the market, providing users with instant feedback about their BAC.

Despite the advancements, breathalyzer tests continue to be a subject of debate and scrutiny. Questions about accuracy, calibration, and the potential for false positives persist. Legal challenges have arisen, questioning the reliability of breathalyzer results and the consequences they carry for DUI convictions.

From the Drunkometer to the modern digital breathalyzer, these devices have played a pivotal role in law enforcement and public safety. As technology continues to advance, it is likely that breathalyzer tests will evolve further, providing law enforcement with more accurate tools to detect impaired driving and protect the public.  However, it is important to remember that it is not a perfect science.  In another blog post I’m going to discuss how reliable these breathalyzer tests are and why it’s important for your attorney to check the one you used. If you or someone you love have a DWI contact me at 504-434-7000 to discuss your breathalyzer test results!  During your free consultation I’ll let you know how we can fight your results and get you the best result for your charge.