Inaccurate Breathalyzers Prove Harmful

29 percent of all vehicular fatalities in 2017 were caused by drunk drivers. While the majority of Americans will agree that driving under the influence is incredibly dangerous and should be punishable by law — to some degree — the methods with which we have prosecuted alleged drunk drivers have not always been completely reliable.

More subjective methods, such as saying the alphabet backwards and tapping your nose, were quickly replaced with the invention of the breathalyzer in 1954. This phone-sized device was said to measure a person’s blood alcohol content (BAC) through a single breath, which revolutionized control over drunk driving accidents and largely disincentivized driving with a BAC over .08, the current maximum in all states. Today, there are few police that go without this hand-held quantifier of drunkenness, if only due to its incredibly easy and cheap usage. However, this has led to an overreliance on a device that has been found to be much less accurate than expected.

An investigation by the New York Times found that, though marketed to be accurate to the third decimal place, breathalyzers often yielded results that were up to 40 percent too high. This means that thousands of people have been wrongfully convicted of drunk driving in America. Not only can this result in extreme consequences in terms of fines and jail time, but the social stigma associated is also life-changing. While there should be serious repercussions for the people who drive drunk, they should only be implemented if there is certainty that a crime has been committed.

Additionally, once the discovery of an error has been made, cases built on breathalyzer results are forcibly thrown out. While these cases could be completely plausible on their own, due to a person’s past experience with drunk driving and other factors, they can no longer be convicted due to the use of a faulty breathalyzer. This has caused judges in multiple states to throw out over 30,000 driving under the influence (DUI) cases.

Ultimately, what is to blame is the lack of government oversight on something that could otherwise be an incredibly effective tool in the fight against drunk driving. Maintaining these complex machines has historically been the responsibility of individual police departments, who have often been less than meticulous, calibrating them incorrectly and using old or stale chemicals. Most of the unreliability associated with breathalyzers could be minimized, if not eliminated, through closer government control, which may include federal regulations set in place by the Health and Human Services or Transportation departments. A non-biased source should be in charge of ensuring the accuracy of instruments that could decide the future of someone who may simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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