Pop quiz, hotshot: Which holiday is the drunkest? If you guessed New Year's Eve, you win! But Super Bowl Sunday is way up on the list, ranking among the top ten for blood-alcohol content (BAC) in most lists of the drunkest holidays. That poses a little problem for anyone driving after the game.
Enter the personal breathalyzer. These portable gadgets can test BAC in under 30 seconds with just a breath. Pass it around, because everyone will want to try for themselves--and comparing the results is fascinating and sort of a party game in itself. And just watch how everyone works together to keep their friends safe now that the data is in front of them.
Most states identify .08 percent as the legal limit for safe driving. Allowing for a margin of error, these devices take the guesswork out of deciding who is ready to drive.
They are cool, affordable, and trite as this sounds, could save a life.
How accurate are they?
Are personal breathalyzers accurate? Well, their results aren't admissible in a court of law; for that you need an expensive police-grade model (which can cost over a thousand dollars). But they are plenty accurate enough to help you regulate your behavior. Generally, you get what you pay for: More expensive models are more reliable and accurate.
Personal breathalyzers offer two main approaches to measure the alcohol in your system. You'll want the first one, though pricier.
Fuel Cell Technology is the most accurate approach, the same used by police for mobile testing. Air goes into a chamber called a "fuel cell" and a chemical process measures alcohol content. While accuracy varies by make and model, some are delivering consistent results close to professional grade units. Personal fuel cell technology is coming down in price, with most today in the $100 and up range.
Semiconductor Technology is much cheaper, not as accurate, and unlike fuel cells, can give false positives if other substances are in the breath (like cigarette smoke or naturally occurring ketones, vapors common in diabetics). These models start around $20.
Using a personal breathalyzer
Most personal breathalyzers operate more or less the same way. Turn on the device, and after a few seconds of warm-up, you blow steadily into the mouthpiece for a few seconds. After a little processing, it displays your estimated BAC.
But beware: It's easy to get a false reading if you're not careful. You should wait at least 15 minutes after your last sip before testing, since alcohol evaporating in your mouth can give false high results. And alcohol takes time to metabolize, so the BAC can continue to rise after testing. Other factors can also have an effect--including body temperature, so be wary of accusing your teen of binge drinking based on a single reading. Crazy values are often the result of using a cheap device.
You should also calibrate or replace your personal breathalyzer once a year to avoid erratic results. All personal breathalyzers rely on sensors that lose accuracy over time. The less often you use them, the faster the degradation, so even if don't drink regularly, blowing into it monthly may prolong its life. Read the fine print on your model to see what the manufacturer recommends.
Speaking of recommendations, here are some personal breathalyzers we recommend that you check out before your next Super Bowl party.
Vastar AB130 Semiconductor Breathalyzer
There are several sub-$30 semiconductor models on the market like this Vastar AB130. The readings from these will fluctuate widely and accuracy is poor. But having one is definitely better than nothing. Just don't rely on it for making a go/no-go driving decision. That said, we strongly recommend stepping up to a fuel-cell model. You can find this one on Amazon for about $20.
The BACtrack Mobile is a nifty fuel-cell model that works in conjunction with your smartphone or Apple watch. As a result, the app can give all sorts of additional info, like how soon (or not) you are expected to be sober, and how your current level of impairment affects you. It's one of the smallest fuel-cell models available. As an aside, the company anonymously aggregates all the user data from its connected devices to deliver fascinating consumption reports. Here's some fun consumption data from Superbowl 2016. It lists for $99 but it's available on Amazon for less.
The BACtrack S80 is currently a favorite fuel-cell model among testers both for its accuracy and overall features. It's bigger than the Mobile version (though still pretty portable). BACtrack has been in the business for years and is one of the better-quality makers on the market, working to improve the technology and make it more affordable. It is available on Amazon for $129
Finally, the AlcoMate Revo is a well-regarded fuel cell model with a key advantage: The sensor, when it wears out, can be replaced for $89. A new sensor keeps this unit fresh and at peak accuracy... though for the cost of a new sensor, you could buy a whole new less pricey breathalyzer. The unit itself has fast startup and operation, is easy to use, and is one of the smallest and lightest. It costs $219 on Amazon.
No one wants to be a downer, so we won't mention that according to the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, 28 people in the United States die every day in an alcohol-related vehicle crash. It's much better to focus on the fun times--like sharing your personal breathalyzer at your next gathering. Bring one, and with luck, you might just start a trend.