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Are Breathalyzers always accurate?

If you flunked a Breathalyzer test during a traffic stop, should you just give up and accept your fate?

Absolutely not.

There's no mercy these days for drunk driving charges. The laws have become increasingly unforgiving, even for first-time offenders. If you are a first-time offender and you think you can cope with the punishment, consider this: If you ever get pulled over again, the previous conviction will be on your record. You'll face much worse consequences the second time around.

Besides, Breathalyzers aren't exactly the most scientifically-sound devices out there. Consider the following:

  • Breathalyzers only estimate the subject's blood alcohol content (BAC). Most people think that the number the machine spits out are absolutes, but they can actually vary as much as 15 percent.
  • Breathalyzers pick up on substances other than alcohol when they operate. If you are producing high levels of acetone or ketones in your body for any reason -- such as an extreme diet that has you cutting out carbs or an undetected case of diabetes -- you're in trouble. The Breathalyzer can't distinguish between those compounds and actual alcohol.
  • Stomach acid can cause a Breathalyzer to misread. If you threw up because of the flu or have acid reflux, that can mess up a Breathalyzer.
  • Extreme temperatures can cause a breathalyzer to fail.
  • A machine that hasn't been properly calibrated between uses can also misread a test subject's BAC.
  • Machines that aren't properly cleaned are also problematic. Roadside dirt, dust and tobacco can all affect the quality of a reading.

There are many people who consider Breathalyzers to be little more than "junk science." A blood test is far more accurate than a Breathalyzer, but they're inconvenient for officers to obtain because they are invasive. In order to get one, it generally requires a warrant. That means an officer has to prove probable cause to a judge -- which he or she may not really have based on a simple traffic stop.

It's always better to consider all of your legal options over a drunk driving charge -- especially if you only failed the Breathalyzer and there's little other evidence against you.

Source: National Motorists Association, "Breathalyzers Fail Legitimacy Test," accessed March 16, 2018

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