No buzz but legally drunk: Reporter tests breath-analysis gizmo


If you’ve ever sat at the pub after work sipping your favorite Cabernet or craft brew, then you’ve probably wondered: When is it safe to drive home? If your blood alcohol concentration reaches .08%, that means someone else should take the keys.

As millions head out to mark the shift from 2013 to 2014, knowing what to do is especially important.

What would it feel like to hit that magic number? How many drinks would it take?

Why do police have tools to monitor my blood alcohol level, but I don’t? Apparently, other people wondered too, because we can now buy breath-analysis gadgets that attach to a key chain.


Recently, I gave the BACtrack, a gizmo that looks a bit like a black Tic Tac case, a try. (The device cost about $29 and is available at Costco, Best Buy and Pep Boys stores in Los Angeles.

From driver’s training days, I remember some motto — one drink per hour — makes a safe driver. Oh, really? That was the first myth to dispel.

Arriving at the party around 8 p.m., I sipped my first glass from a box of Merlot and a second 45 minutes later. Meanwhile, I ate sesame seed crackers with smoked Gouda.

To get an accurate blood alcohol reading, you must stop drinking and eating 20 minutes before blowing into the breathalyzer.

Around 10:15 p.m., my plate contained maybe four crumbs and my glass ran dry. I consumed nothing for 30 minutes, and around 10:45 p.m. I whipped out my BACtrack and confidently announced my intention to test my blood alcohol.

Holding the device, everyone’s eyes on me, I filled my lungs and blew a balloon’s worth of air through a pinhole as my face turned every shade of Merlot. Finally the beep-beep signaled me to stop.


I felt fine. I wasn’t swearing or telling inappropriate jokes. No buzz. I thought, two drinks in two hours —nothing to worry about.

As long as I didn’t drive, that is. My blood alcohol was .08%.

Predictably, everyone else at the party wanted a turn. We were like EBay shoppers bidding on the last bottle of OPI nail polish.

Someone blew 0.16%. Good thing she lived in the neighborhood — she walked home. Others blew numbers around .03. Maybe what you might expect from someone nursing a Chardonnay for two hours.

San Francisco-based BACtrack’s founder and chief executive, Keith Nothacker, said in a statement that the device is accurate for about 250 tests. If it’s used infrequently, it should be recalibrated every six to 12 months, which BACtrack can do for about $20.

California Highway Patrol Officer Ming Hsu said he couldn’t comment on the accuracy of devices such as BACtrack, but he suggested relying instead on a designated driver who does not drink.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration agreed, saying also that a person’s weight, gender and food consumption also affect impairment. And people become impaired — and can be convicted — at levels lower than .08%.


Even if the readings are not 100% accurate, knowing a ballpark blood alcohol level made me think twice about the next drink.

Even if you don’t feel buzzed, seeing the numbers gives you a certain awareness you can’t deny. Maybe it can make it a little easier to wake your partner after midnight for a ride or perhaps for you to part with a fifty for the cabdriver.

One final thought. If you happen to pass out and wake up the next morning on your friend’s couch, blow into the breathalyzer again. The number might be alarming.