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Personal breathalyzer devices: How accurate are they?

Personal breathalyzer devices: How accurate are they?

Technology that was once used only by police officers is becoming cheap enough and accessible enough to be purchased by average citizens. A good example is the breath-alcohol test, commonly known as the breathalyzer.

These devices used to cost thousands of dollars, and many high-end models still do. But we have previously written that consumers can now buy fairly accurate devices for between about $50 and $250. While not admissible as evidence in court, personal breathalyzer devices can help drinkers avoid DUI charges in the first place (if used before deciding to get behind the wheel).

If you're considering investing in one of these devices, you should know that quality and accuracy can vary widely. And cost isn't necessarily a good indicator of either quality or accuracy.

One type of personal breathalyzer connects with the user's smartphone. The testing device apparently collects the breath sample and then displays the results on a connected phone. According to a recent review of three leading smartphone breathalyzers, however, the reviewers found that readings were often inaccurate, sometimes registering a BAC twice as high or half as high as the real reading. These devices were compared to readings from a breathalyzer commonly used by law enforcement agencies.

Most personal breathalyzers are reusable and display BAC readings digitally. But there are also single-use breathalyzers that use color-changing crystals to display intoxication. When you blow through a tube packed with these yellow crystals, some will turn green to indicate detection of alcohol on the breath. If they turn green past a pre-marked line, the user is apparently over the legal limit. A single-use breathalyzer was featured in a different news report, and it seemed to be accurate (although there was only one test conducted).

Before buying a personal breathalyzer device, it would be wise to do some online research, read reviews and determine which is the most accurate breathalyzer in your price range. And as always, it is best to err on the side of caution. If your breathalyzer says you are close to (but under) 0.08 percent BAC, you may want to assume that it is not safe to drive.

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