One more for the road?

23 Sep 09 03:58PM EST
Post by Christopher Zinn
Heard the one about the man who walked into a pub with a pocketful of breathalyzers? We had tested out these devices in strict laboratory conditions but what happens when you let them loose among some real life boozers?

For starters you get another view of how people both use and interpret the results of personal breathalyzers in a way the more clinical and disciplined trials cannot. In short while the devices maybe flawed so too are we humans …certainly after a bevy.

My favorite example: the young auto worker in the European beer café who’d had a few highly alcoholic brews and was delighted to check out the devices which cost up to $200. He huffed and he puffed into three of them having waited 15 minutes after his last drink for a more accurate reading ( a hard enough ask in itself given the understandable impatience of the situation).

Three electronic handheld breathalyzers  later and three very different results; a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.12; 0.07 and 0.04. The first indicating he was well over the limit, the second somewhat and the third just under. Given the CHOICE research revealed that too many of the devices were unreliable, particularly in terms of underestimating the BAC i.e. indicating you were under the limit when you were over, he mulled over the figures carefully. He then elected to drive home.

He agreed you couldn’t trust the readings but felt reassured at least one of them had indicated it was ‘safe’ to drive. In a way he seemed to think it gave him permission notwithstanding that any copper or magistrate would laugh that excuse out of court.

Others in this test were also amazed by the spread of readings but also tended to focus on the lowest BAC, never on the highest and only occasionally on taking an average. My take home message on this: we see what we want to see… especially after a drink or two.

Mixing human fallibility with electronic unreliability is one thing but sending the results out onto the road is a risky escalation. I felt my user group, and sure we had fun, looked on the gizmos as more of a device to let them drink more before reaching a legal limit than a moderator warning them NOT to drive should they reach 0.05.

Fortunately the young man got home safely but should we put so much trust into unreliable machines in such high stakes decisions? What do you think ?


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