On a recent Saturday night, a small crowd of bar patrons fluttered about the Castle Lounge, where Mike Schuette sat at the bar waiting out the effects of his last Jack and Coke before stepping up to the Alco-Buddy.
“I’m curious to know what it says,” he said of the small machine mounted on the wall.
After about 10 minutes, he inserted a dollar, grabbed the straw and blew into the machine. The Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) reading: .18.
“I think that’s a little high,” Schuette said. “Should be closer to .15 or so.”
In California, the current legal BAC is .08 for drivers 21 and older.
The Alco-Buddy, like a similar device, the Breath Tester, is a wall-mounted breathalyzer unit, placed in establishments that serve alcohol. For $1 to $3, it offers bar patrons a means to determine if they’ve had too much to drink before they drive, though both models come labeled with the disclaimer “For entertainment purposes only.”
Around November, locals Joel Smith and Jason Blake launched their business, BACfire, to distribute the Alco-Buddy, about the same time Lori Heston began distribution of the Breath Tester. Between the two businesses, they supply at least five breathalyzer machines in Redding, Anderson and Chico bars.
In addition to a desire for safer drivers, Smith and Blake said their venture into the business came from personal motivation — they have been stopped for driving under the influence of alcohol in the past. “I know how hard it is,” Smith said of the expensive DUI process. “We don’t want people to have to go through that.”
BACfire has installed the machine in one bar – the Castle Lounge – where bartender Steve McGrath said customers are using it, but the concept hasn’t completely caught on yet.
“It’s gotten more use than I expected,” he said. “It’s funny, though. It says to wait for the blue light before you blow, but there’s no blue light.” After a few beers, he said, that might be especially confusing.
Accuracy of the two machines’ readings is dependent on a number of factors. Both have specific instructions to wait 10 minutes after the last drink of alcohol or tobacco use. For multiple tests, users must wait two minutes between readings.
And while both breathalyzer manufacturers claim their devices are similar to those used by some police departments, the technology of the machines isn’t on par with what police departments use, including the Redding Police Department, RPD crime scene technician Mike Darling said.
To be compliant with federal regulations, fuel cell technology must be used in law enforcement breathalyzers, Darling said. It’s possible, he said, that some agencies use the ethanol sensitive version, but Redding police use fuel cell technology in all their units.
Both distributors said their respective companies are working on fuel cell-based versions.
In an email, Smith said just seeing the machine in a bar is a constant reminder to patrons not to drive drunk. “For those that are more responsible with their drinking and actually care about being okay to drive, there is a way to check themselves instead of guessing. How else would you know if you’re under or over the limit?”
Redding Police Lt. Eric Wallace said the police department doesn’t have a position on whether the machines are a good idea for the community.
At about a foot wide by 18 inches tall, the breathalyzers use an ethanol-sensitive oxide semiconductor to measure BAC. The sensor is said to last between 800 and 1,100 uses, and calibration is recommended every six weeks or so. Both BACfire and Heston recalibrate every 30 days, their representatives said.
“People are often surprised by how little it takes to register a .08,” Heston, the Breath Tester distributor, said in an email. “So it is serving to raise people’s awareness of their own limits and knowing when they need to call for a designated driver.”
This reporter used both machines, on different days. After a pint of pale ale, ingested over a 35- to 45-minute span, and after 10 minutes following the last sip, the BAC readings were identical: .10. For a 207-pound male, the readings didn’t correlate with the California Department of Motor Vehicle’s chart, which indicates that it would generally take a person that size about four drinks in an hour to reach that level of intoxication. However, as both distributors said, the goal of the machines is to provide patrons an idea of how intoxicated they may be.
Some bartenders may be wary of the machines as a liability. But that risk is minimized because BAC readings are not stored and machines offer the “entertainment” disclaimer, both BACfire and Alco-Buddy representatives said.
Currently, the Breath Tester machine can be found in the Rusty Nail and the recently reopened Hen House, as well as All Stars Sports Bar in Anderson and Crazy Horse Saloon in Chico. Paul Hurst, bartender at the Nail, said patrons are playing the breathalyzer like a video game. Whether patrons adhere to the 10-minute rule adds a level of concern, he added.
“Ten minutes seems like a long time to not drink, after you’ve already been drinking,” Hurst said, saying he’s witnessed that as a common problem.
Cocktail waitress Teri (who declined to give her last name), said people use the breathalyzer as a contest – the “winner” is the person who blows the lowest BAC. That person then buys the next round.
Heston said that those who use the machines in a manner other than they were intended make up a minority. Her goal for the machines, which echoes the sentiments of Smith and Blake, are for a shift in behavior and responsibility when it comes to driving after drinking.
Smith, a 32-year-old pipeline designer, first saw a machine like the Buddy while he was in Australia in 2006. “I thought it was a good idea,” he said. But it wasn’t until late last summer, while paging through a photo album and spotting a breathalyzer again, that he acted on bringing the concept to town.
“It seems like a no-brainer,” Smith said. “When they made the drinking and driving limit law they should have given us a way to check ourselves from the get-go.”
Joshua Corbelli wears a number of hats these days – journalist, small business owner and team builder. He’s always had a place in his heart for the written word, and works, though not as much as he’d like, to keep his skills sharp. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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