Flashlight has a nose for drunken drivers
June 16, 1999
(CNN) -- "Howdy. I need to see license and proof of insurance please."
You might have been through this before - stopped at a police road-block, gazing into the beam of a flashlight.
But what you might not realize while you're looking for your wallet is that the flashlight is helping the officer smell as well as see what's inside your car.
The new device, "The Sniffer," contains an alcohol sensor.
"I put it up to the window," says Lou Gregoire, who is with the Gwinnett County (Georgia) DUI Task Force. "Then I push this top button when I ask him say what's your address and this little yellow light comes on and tells me that the pump's working... and it sucks air into the flashlight.
"If you get the highest red read-out there then the ambient level inside the car is going to be a .12 or more," he says. "Now that doesn't necessarily mean that the driver has had a lot to drink, but somebody in there has been drinking a lot or they've spilled some alcohol inside the car recently."
Jarel Kelsey, president of PAS Systems in Fredericksburg, Va., which makes The Sniffer, says the device samples air from in or around the subject's head area and analyzes it for the presence of alcohol vapors.
"It uses an electrochemical fuel-cell sensor, and this sensor is highly specific and analytical for alcohol and only alcohol," Kelsey says of the device, which was patented in 1992. The Sniffer was developed by researchers under the direction of various insurance and highway safety organizations, including the National Highway Traffic Administration.
The device sells for about $600, and hundreds have been bought by law enforcement agencies, schools and correctional institutions in the United States and in countries ranging from South Africa to South Korea, Kelsey says. Some correctional officers use the device to test convicts returning at the end of the day of work release or to sniff out illegal "hooch" contraptions in prison laundry rooms and cells.
The alcohol found in some liquid cold medications, as well as in mouthwash, evaporates within five to 15 minutes, Kelsey says. Those who use The Sniffer are trained to wait if someone claims they just used one of those products so that the device registers a positive only if the subject is exhaling respiratory alcohol from liquor, wine or beer.
So far, there is no similar device to detect the presence of street drugs on a subject's breath, Kelsey says.
Officers say the flashlight helps sniff out drivers who are legally drunk but have blood alcohol levels too low to pick up with the nose alone.
"We probably are picking up 20 to 30 percent more people that we wouldn't be able to detect without the use of the flashlight," Gregoire says.
The U.S. Department of Transportation says one in every 13 drivers on the road between 10 p.m. and 1 a.m. is legally drunk. Last year, there were an estimated 16,000 deaths in alcohol-related crashes nation-wide.
Like polygraph machines, The Sniffer can help police find clues, and its results cannot be used as evidence in court. But still, some say its use is an invasion of privacy.
"If you see someone driving badly," says Casey Raskob, attorney for the National Motorists Association, "stop them and see why they're driving badly. Don't sit at a road-block and shine flashlights at people."
"It's not an intrusive thing; it's not where they're having to provide a sample," he says. "We're not checking if you're sitting in a car and I'm talking to you. I'm not checking your breath. I'm checking the ambient air coming from the cabin."
Raskob counters that the device finds any level of alcohol on someone's breath "to the point where if you go out for dinner and you have a glass of wine, you have to worry for the ride home."
Some drivers think The Sniffer will save young lives and say they feel safer on the roads.
Says one driver, ""I really believe that it's a wonderful advantage, and technology is fantastic. We've got to save our young people"
Correspondent Rick Lockridge contributed to this report.
Indiana County tests 'photo breathalyzer'
Gwinnett County Police Department
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