Yesterday, just in time for New Year’s Eve, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s office issued a bare bones press release about federal funding to update the state’s breathalyzers, used by police to help convinct drunk drivers.
Here’s the text:
Drunken driving, one of the deadliest and most senseless crimes, tragically claimed 111 lives on Connecticut roads in 2008. As part of the state’s ongoing efforts to keep intoxicated drivers off the road and save lives, Governor M. Jodi Rell today announced that the state is receiving federal funds to supply state and local police patrols with 120 more breathalyzers.
“Putting the brakes on drunken drivers before there are tragic consequences, before a family suffers a heartbreaking loss is a public safety priority,” Governor Rell said. “These resources will help law enforcement keep the motoring public safe and remove these dangerous drivers from our state and local roads.”
The breathalyzers will be purchased with $700,000 in federal funds that have been secured by the state Department of Transportation.
The DOT will distribute the breathalyzers to state and local law enforcement, colleges, universities and mobile blood alcohol testing stations over the next few months. The equipment will assist police with sobriety checkpoints and special DUI patrols around the state.
The units will be distributed to 12 state police barracks, 103 police departments and six mobile testing stations, which are used at sobriety checkpoints.
Rell’s release – obviously intended as a piece of feel good news during a slow holiday week – sparked questions in our newsroom like “Is their a shortage of breathalyzers in Connecticut?” and “Is something wrong with the existing equipment?”
I and our transportation reporter, Martin Cassidy, made a few phonecalls and the result was this interesting story by Martin in today’s Hearst newspapers:
The state will use $700,000 in federal money toward the purchase of $1 million worth of new stationary and portable blood-alcohol measuring devices, officials announced Wednesday, replacing equipment that is facing a legal challenge regarding the precision of its measurement.
Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced the funding from the National Highway Safety Administration on Wednesday. But the state in January 2009 already had signed a $975,000 contract to buy 150 Alcotest 9510 devices from Irving, Texas-based Draeger Safety Diagnostics, according to state documents.
“Putting the brakes on drunken drivers before there are tragic consequences, before a family suffers a heartbreaking loss, is a public safety priority,” Rell said in a statement.
Local police departments, including Stamford, Greenwich, Darien, New Canaan and Norwalk, are among the 103 municipal departments that will receive a new Alcotest 9510 unit, state Department of Transportation spokesman Kevin Nursick said.
The devices will also be distributed to 12 State Police barracks over the next several months, State Police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said, and will replace Intoxilyzer machines, some of which are 17 years old and nearing the end of their usefulness.
The new machines were selected by a committee of law enforcement officials and scientific experts, he said.
“The old machines are obsolete, and it is time to replace them to stay current with the times,” Vance said.
Shelton attorney James Ruane, who is challenging the accuracy of the Intoxilyzer 5000 devices, said the state’s decision to opt for a new vendor could signal doubts about whether the Intoxilyzer works properly, even if used correctly.
Ruane said he believes both the Intoxilyzer and another device, the Draeger Alcotest, don’t reliably test the level of alcohol in a person’s blood.
“My question is, why are we spending a million dollars on the new machines if the old machines are good, and if the old machines are good, why aren’t we still using them?” Ruane said.
Because the computerized analysis doesn’t account for physiological factors involved from driver to driver, including weight and lung capacity, which can influence the amount of alcohol molecules found in a breath sample, the devices often provide inaccurate readings, he said.
Ruane is appealing a November 2007 administrative decision by the state Department of Motor Vehicles to revoke the license of one of his clients. That case is being heard in state appeals court in New Britain.
“The machine takes everybody on the planet and uses a single calculation,” Ruane said. “Regardless of other indicators, like weight, or if your speech is slurred, the machine uses a ratio that will overstate or understate what is in your blood.”
Attempts to reach representatives of Draeger Safety Diagnostic Inc. and CMI Inc., the manufacturer of the Intoxilyzer, were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Stamford Police Sgt. Andrew Gallagher, who coordinates drunken driving enforcement, defended the Intoxilyzer 5000′s precision, but said an upgrade is timely and will bring the department up to speed with newer technology.
“There is a plethora of scientific study that the Intoxilyzer works, but defense lawyers work to create doubt in people’s minds,” Gallagher said. “People like to see the result of a chemical test for the level of intoxication, but it is only part of the continuum of evidence, including a well-trained and -versed officer explaining their observations and other indicators of intoxication.”
Last year, New Jersey’s Supreme Court ruled that Draeger’s Alcotest 7110 MK-III was scientifically reliable, despite several software problems needing correction.
Evan Levow, the Cherry Hill, N.J., defense attorney who unsuccessfully challenged the machine’s performance, said he believes while blood-alcohol measuring devices may be capable of accurate results, residents should be concerned that a machine be evaluated to ensure it is properly configured to do so.
“It’s possibly a very good machine but it has to be configured properly based on the computer code,” Levow said. “I don’t think the court’s decision was correct, and I think this is an issue the people of Connecticut should be concerned about, and I’m hopeful lawyers in Connecticut will challenge the reliability of these machines and pick up where we left off.”
Nursick said the replacement was motivated by a need to replace aging units for police across the state, and the announcement during the holidays helped reinforce the message that drunken driving entails the risk of arrest.
“Law enforcement is not complaining about them, but their sentiment is that the older models need to be replaced because they have reached the end of their service life,” Nursick said. “Law enforcement will continue to have the vital tools to keep drunks off the road.”