The technology used by Washington State Patrol to test the blood alcohol content (BAC) of drivers arrested for drunk driving has been around for over 20 years. In that time, thousands of people have stood in police stations before the breath test machines, blowing a long breath into the device, while waiting for their results to print out showing their BAC. Now those 20-year-old devices are on their way out as a newer, faster and sleeker breath-test machine will take their place.
These new breath test-machines are not the same as the breathalyzer field devices which police use at the scene after pulling over a driver. The new devices are the larger and arguably more accurate devices inside the stations for use after a person is arrested. The results from these machines can then be used to prosecute a person for driving under the influence (DUI).
The Washington State Patrol is upgrading their breath-test machines. More than 80 of the new Dräger Alcotest 9510 will find their way into jails, State Patrol divisions, and police and sheriff's stations, ushering out the ancient DataMasters. State Trooper Mel Sterkel said there was no comparison between the two machines. “It's like a Commodore 64. It works great, but it's all about appearance,” Sterkel said in reference to the DataMaster made in the 1980s.
By appearance alone, the new machines impress. They are smaller, feature a touch screen, and run on Microsoft software with greater processing power to put out faster results. These replacement models run about $9,500 each, and the state will eventually need to purchase another 200 of them to replace the older machines. However, the principle behind the device remains the same. The machine will analyze the chemicals in the breath to determine a person's blood alcohol level. Meanwhile, the older machine, which are no longer manufactured, will remain in use in some stations, until the State Patrol receives approval to fund the additional machines.
The State Patrol has been criticized in the past for their use of the old DataMaster machines, as well as their DUI protocols. In 2008, a panel of King County District Court judges found that there were multiple errors in how chemical tests were analyzed and verified, which affected thousands of DUI cases. The judges said the state toxicologist and former lab manager engaged in fraudulent and scientifically unacceptable practices, including errors in the breath test machine calibration. The State Patrol is responsible for maintaining the breath testing machines.
The specific device uses two independent testing technologies to analyze breath alcohol with infrared spectroscopy and electrochemical cell technology. According to the Dräger website, their instruments “exceed the requirements of national and international regulatory agencies,” and are listed as National Highway Traffic Safety Administration conforming products. Other states, including New York, California, and Washington, D.C. are also using the same device.
While the Dräger Alcotest 9510 is available for law enforcement use only, you can find more information about the product and see what it looks like here.