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These are testing times

Sydney Morning Herald

Saturday 12 May 2001
Author: Peter McKay

Section: Motoring



Every NSW police car is an RBT unit, yet drink-drivers still play Russian roulette. Peter McKay becomes a guinea pig with a personal, hand-held breathalyser.

What price would you pay to avoid shame, licence disqualification and possibly maiming or killing someone? For about $600, or the price of a set of tyres, a premium quality personal blood-alcohol tester will keep you on the road - by telling you when to take a taxi.

People baulk at the price of the better, accurate, personal test units. Yet few would be keen to drive around radar-infested NSW in a vehicle without a speedometer.

Many pubs and clubs have wall-mounted breathalysers for patrons concerned about their blood alcohol concentration (BAC), but that's no help when you're at a favourite restaurant working your way through a bottle of wine.

There are dozens of mainly imported personal, hand-held testers that use semi-conductor sensors. Priced about $100, these are often wildly inaccurate, potentially lethal toys with little discriminatory ability. The high-quality units use fuel-cell technology, are mobile phone-sized, accurate to 10 per cent or better and should be regularly recalibrated by the manufacturer.

Weekend Drive and wife recently used the much-praised $589 Alcolizer HH1 to measure our BAC after a pleasant meal and bottle of cab sauv.

The HH1, carrying a Quality Assurance licence, is the only hand-held breathalyser certified to Australian Standard AS3547 Type II.

It is also the only device of its type that warns the user that it needs re-calibrating, shutting itself down after 300 analyses or six months.

Over 80 minutes, we sipped our way through two-thirds of a standard bottle. For greater accuracy, users are asked not to blow in the unit for 10-15 minutes after their last drink. So a quarter of an hour later, I blew .045, a level too close to the limit - 0.05 grams of alcohol per 100 mL of blood - for comfort. I felt moderately affected. Sharon, who drank less than me, blew .021. She drove.

Safely at home, we retested ourselves. My BAC was down; hers had risen.

A second test involving a full bottle of wine during a meal at a local restaurant was more, er, sobering.

My share of about two-thirds of the contents registered a disturbing .083, well above the limit (it felt like it, too). Sharon scored .038 from her one-third of a bottle.

Thirty minutes later, after a walk home, our BACs had dropped a little - mine to .076; hers to .030.

Our conclusion: alcohol moves through bloodstreams in mysterious, unpredictable ways. Spending less than $600 to know when you are over the limit seems a good idea.

So why do so many of us who like a social drink still drive home even though we might be unsure about our BAC? Many of us know the scenario well. You're at a cocktail party, nibbling, chatting, having your glass topped up. Is that the time? Better fly. Where's the car? How many have you had - two, three, too many?

Foolhardy drivers take a chance that they're under the blood alcohol limit or that they'll evade the police random breath-testing units (and in NSW, every police car is a mobile RBT unit).

Magistrates have criticised the broad and vague guidelines for drinking - and with good reason. Line up 100 people, give them the same amounts of alcohol and the outcome would be 100 different analyses.

Factors such as the presence and type of food in the stomach have an effect on the absorption of alcohol. Women and men absorb and metabolise alcohol differently.

Guessing your fitness to drive is a risky business; you are gambling with lives and your reputation. Oddly, because it can make many of us happier than usual, alcohol is a depressant, slowing brain function, reducing our ability to respond to situations, make decisions, judge speed and distances and take action. It impairs concentration and perception, balance (a factor when riding a motorcycle) and alertness.

The other side effect is that, just when we should show caution, alcohol encourages people to increase risk-taking behaviour. One in four driver and rider fatalities in Australia is over 0.05. About one in five pedestrian fatalities has at least that reading.

Alcohol and vehicles don't mix. Your personal tester can make sure the twain don't meet.