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How accurate are the breathalysers that you can buy online?

“My parents want to buy me a breathalyser now that I’ve got my licence. I’m on my P-plates and so I’ve got to be 0.00 and I’ve read mixed reviews about whether they’re worth the money as they’re not always accurate. What do you recommend?”

Breathalysers are used in a variety of settings, including medical situations and workplaces where safety could be compromised if a person is affected by alcohol. Of course, they’re most well-known for their use by police to test for the presence of alcohol in drivers in random breath testing (RBT) operations. The result provides officers with the driver’s blood alcohol content or concentration (BAC) level, i.e., the percent of alcohol in the bloodstream.

The handheld breathalysers police use must be regularly tested and professionally checked and adjusted for accuracy and reliability (known as calibration). Even then, they’re not perfect and, as a result, the results of these devices can’t be used in a court of law. They’re essentially ‘screening tools’ that if you fail, you’ll then be subjected to a more sophisticated testing process conducted in the mobile bus or police station. Those results can be used in evidence.

Personal breathalysers, often bought online, have become increasingly popular. There are many different types available, with prices ranging from around $100 to well over $1000. There are also cheap disposable products available in chemists and supermarkets that are used once and then thrown away. Of course, the more expensive the product, the better the quality. Most quality products will come with a recommendation that it’ll need to be calibrated every 6-12 months. That means taking the device to a specialized service that’ll ensure it’s functioning properly and providing accurate readings. Unfortunately, many handheld devices sold online aren’t able to be calibrated for accuracy. Whilst these devices may give an indication of your BAC, they’re certainly not perfect.

The most important thing for a young driver to remember is that even if you use the best quality portable breathalyser, it may only be calibrated for accuracy once every 6 months at best. Police devices are tested far more regularly and are therefore likely to be much more accurate. When you have to have a 0.00 BAC, even the smallest amount of difference in accuracy is so important.

I believe it’s a great idea for young drivers to use portable breathalysers, particularly the day after drinking. Too many P-platers fail an RBT because they just don’t wait long enough, not realizing that it can take a very long time for them to process alcohol effectively.  If you or your family is going to invest in one of these devices, however, there’s only one way they should ever be used by a young driver. It involves a bit of forward planning but it’ll be worth it.

If you wake up after a night of drinking and you want to drive at 10.00am, breathalyse yourself at 9.00am, one hour before you want to get behind the wheel of a car. If you get a reading of 0.00 at 9.00am, then wait one hour before driving. As a young driver who needs to have a 0.00 BAC, you need to give yourself a ‘buffer’ when it comes to a portable breathalyser. They’re not always accurate and you may have had a 0.00 reading on your device, but unfortunately there’s always the chance that if you get pulled over by the police, their potentially more accurate breathalyser may come up with a different result.

No-one wants to find themselves in court facing a DUI charge. Portable breathalysers, even the ones used by police are not 100% accurate. They can certainly provide you with an indication of your BAC but when you have to have a 0.00 reading, you need to be extra careful and if you are in any doubt at all, the message is simple – don’t drive!

Please note that the advice provided is for information purposes only. As such, it cannot substitute for the advice of a legal professional.

First published: April 2024

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