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Monday, December 31, 2012

How Police Nab Drunk Drivers: From Drunkometer To Breathalyzer

Dorothy Brengel helps W.D. Foden, Chairman of Statler Safety Committee, demonstrate the “Drunkometer”, a breath tests for alcohol, on display at the Greater New York Safety Council, Hotel Statler, March 28, 1950. For the preliminary test, the breath of the suspect is collected in a balloon and passed through a purple fluid (potassium permanganate and sulphuric acid) to see if it changes color. The breath of a non-drinking person will cause no change. If the purple color disappears, the amount of breath required to accomplish this indicates the approximate accumulation of alcohol in the blood. (AP/Carl Nesensohn)

Dorothy Brengel helps W.D. Foden, Chairman of Statler Safety Committee, demonstrate the “Drunkometer”, a breath tests for alcohol, on display at the Greater New York Safety Council, Hotel Statler, March 28, 1950. For the preliminary test, the breath of the suspect is collected in a balloon and passed through a purple fluid (potassium permanganate and sulphuric acid) to see if it changes color. The breath of a non-drinking person will cause no change. If the purple color disappears, the amount of breath required to accomplish this indicates the approximate accumulation of alcohol in the blood. (AP/Carl Nesensohn)

In 1938, on New Year’s Eve, police in Indianapolis put a new piece of technology through its first practical test.

They used a breath analyzer to determine if someone had been drinking. What was then called the “Drunkometer” was based on the same idea as modern breathalyzers: a person blows into a bag, which contains chemicals that react according to how much alcohol is on a person’s breath.

Modern breathalyzers first came on the market in 1954. Since then the idea behind the technology has been refined and now infrared spectroscopy is used in some models to determine alcohol levels.

While the number of deaths as a result of car accidents involving alcohol has fallen since records started being kept in 1982, more than 9,000 people died in such accidents in 2010.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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