The History (and Future) of Breath Alcohol Testing

Breath Alcohol testing has been a large part of law enforcement for many years. If you are in control of a car and are involved in an accident or stopped as part of a random check, you will be breathalysed using some form of breathalyser. This is to ensure that you aren’t over the legal limit whilst driving the car, making the roads and the people that use them safer.

Before cars were so prevalent in modern society, being drunk in charge of a method of transportation would most likely lead to you falling off your horse. Potential fatal? Yes. Causing damage to others? Probably not.

It was the rise of the speed and weight of cars that led to them being proficiently damaging in an accident when handled incorrectly. During the 50’s and 60’s, when car ownership was increasing at a rapid rate, 50% of traffic fatalities involved a drunk driver, whereas today it is nearer 30%.

The formalising of the alcohol detection method began in 1927 when Emil Bogen published a paper on the testing of breath for alcohol using a football bladder to collect the air sample. Although knowledge about testing for alcohol in breath can be traced back to as early as 1874; it was this research that laid the ground work for the comparison of breath alcohol concentration (BrAC) to blood alcohol concentration (BAC).

In 1938 a more stable breath-testing instrument, aptly named the ‘Drunkometer’ was developed by Indiana University professor Rolla Harger. The Drunkometer would collect breath, adding it to a chemical solution which changed colour depending on how much alcohol was present. Using a clever calculation Harger had devised, the level of BrAC could also be roughly determined.

Later in 1954, Robert Borkenstein improved upon Harger’s invention, naming it the ‘breathalyser‘, which brought the first portable alcohol testing to the roadside.

However, it wasn’t until 1967 that the first electronic breathalyser was brought to market in the UK by William ‘Bill’ Ducie and Tom Parry Jones at Lion Laboratories in Cardiff. The electronic breathalyser’s release would coincide with the Road Safety Act 1967 which introduced the first legally enforceable maximum blood alcohol level for drivers in the UK.

Since then, breathalyser technology has advanced utilising the use of ‘fuel cells’ such as SureScreen’s cutting edge alcohol breathalysers. Fuel cells are more accurate, offer better stability over long periods and greater longevity than other traditional methods.

So what does the future hold?
BACtrack have been developing a wristband, Skyn, that can tell the wearer how drunk they are. It works by detecting ethanol molecules that the skin releases when alcohol is consumed.

The more alcohol that is consumed, the more impaired the person will be. This handy wristband will give the wearer a reading of how drunk they actually are, encouraging the wearer to slowdown or stop before it’s too late.

As we approach 100 years since Bogen’s first White Paper on Alcohol Testing, it’s incredible to see how far the technology has come since those days of blowing into a football bladder. Now with Alcohol Testing moving towards wearable technology (as with everything else in our lives) it’s interesting to think where it could go in the future. Could this technology be built in to the Apple Watch? Or could it be part of new cars to test the driver before allowing the engine to start? You can be sure that SureScreen will always be at the forefront of tomorrow’s technology.

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