Under the influence

Reno traffic cops rum it up and find flaws in a new one-step blood alcohol test

Three cops, 12 drinks and two ways to test blood alcohol levels. What will prove to be the weakest link?

Three cops, 12 drinks and two ways to test blood alcohol levels. What will prove to be the weakest link?

Photo by David Robert

Laughter, boozy breath and voices that were just a little too loud let us know some serious drinking was going on. Ice rattled in the glasses of the three men downing rum and Cokes or Guinness.

“Drink No. 6,” said the bartender, pouring carefully measured drinks into plastic cups. The men laughed and lifted their cups.

“I’m slurring already,” one man said. Another drinker, tall and lean, balanced himself against the counter, his face a bright crimson: “Funny thing about drinking—it makes me feel like dancing.”

No, we weren’t at a local nightclub or bar. We were in the break room of the Reno Police Department. The men drinking were Reno police officers putting their blood alcohol levels on the line to help us test a new gizmo.

The Guardian Angel One-Step Alcohol Test is marketed as a cheap, accurate way to measure your blood alcohol level before getting behind the wheel of a car. You can pick it up at Reno convenience stores—99 cents for a packet with two strips.

“If you drink, think,” is the Guardian Angel One-Step Alcohol Test slogan.

“What a great idea!” I thought. If it worked, a do-it-yourself test could be a useful tool in helping curb the number of drunk drivers on the road.In early April, I went out drinking and decided to test out the strips. Two friends agreed to be my test subjects.

The directions on the Guardian Angel One-Step Alcohol Test packet are complex: “Wait 15 minutes from the last time you’ve had something in your mouth” and “Wait five seconds while the strip is placed in the mouth” and “Wait two more minutes for the results.”

The color-changing strip has basically three settings. No color change indicates a blood alcohol content under .04 percent. A light pink color indicates a BAC of .04 percent or higher. A purple color indicates .08 percent or higher.

I tried to follow the directions on the packet as best as I could. But I’d had three drinks. My friends had consumed at least four or five beers and seemed in no shape to drive. But nothing showed up on the strips, indicating a BAC under .04 percent. In Nevada, that would be well under the current legal OK-to-drive limit of .10 percent BAC.

Maybe I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to conduct such tests, I concluded. But if I’d botched the test because I’d been drinking—and the test is intended to help people who are drinking—well, you get the idea.

The test strips could be counter-productive, said Laurel Stadler, the director of one local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“Something like this could give people a very, very false sense of security,” Stadler said. “Certainly, if someone has been drinking it’s very likely they will not follow instructions. There are too many variables involved in this. Most bars are not going to have clocks readily available for people to time themselves taking the test."I decided that if I was going to get an accurate test of these strips, I needed to test them scientifically—in a controlled environment. I contacted the Reno Police Department and met with Lt. Ron Donnelly.

I was invited to test the strips at the Reno Police Department, where three officers would be drinking in a controlled environment. We’d test the drinkers’ blood alcohol content on the Reno Police Department Portable Breathalyzer Test and compare the results with those on the strips. The police department’s PBT is one of the brands approved by the state, and it’s recalibrated once a month, Lt. Donnelly said. And if it does err, it’s programmed to err in favor of a lower BAC for the drinker.

On the night of the test, RN&R contributing photo editor David Robert and I were led into a break room, where officers Thompson, Hawkins and Knight, who wanted to use only their last names, were already on drink No. 6. The bartender, aka Officer McMillin, tracked the amount of alcohol each man was drinking.

Shortly after I arrived, I tested officers Knight and Hawkins. The Portable Breathalyzer Test showed Hawkins had a BAC of .08 percent. The Guardian Angel test strip turned purple. Good so far. But Knight tested out at .07 percent BAC on the PBT and the Guardian Angel strip did not change color at all.

The men kept drinking.

David and I sat down with officers Thompson and Hawkins while Officer Knight leaned up against the counter. When it comes to dealing with drunks, these guys are veterans. Officer Thompson, who has been with the RPD for 15 years, and Officer Hawkins, 2 1/2 years, know all the tricks in the book.

The most common line? “But officer, I’ve only had two drinks,” Thompson said. These officers can sniff out a drunk by the time they reach a car window. No, folks, smoking or chewing gum doesn’t help, and vodka is not an odorless alcohol.

As we talked with the drinking officers, the effects of alcohol, including impaired judgment, became evident. There was no need to make these men walk a straight line.

After a heated conversation with McMillin, one officer grabbed the phone and walked off. Stretching the telephone cord to near breaking point, he shut the door to the bathroom.

“He’s calling his ex-wife,” McMillin laughed.

“Don’t do it!” the drinkers shouted.

After 12 drinks, these officers were wasted, laughing at jokes only evident to themselves. It was time to really test out the strips. After waiting 15 minutes from their last sip of alcohol, Officer McMillin administered the Portable Breathalyzer Test. Officer Thompson registered a .15 on the PBT. I handed him a Guardian Angel strip, which he placed in his mouth. The strip showed light pink, with purple blotches. The instructions for the test didn’t include this as an option. Did it mean he was somewhere between a .04 and a .08 blood alcohol content? Was he OK to drive after 12 drinks or not?

“Anybody who’s had 12 drinks is not OK to drive,” Lt. Donnelly said in a later interview. “That should be a no-brainer. Here you have sober people conducting your study. This packet should be reliable. It should show that he’s off the charts.”

The test strip’s results were dead on, though, for Officer Hawkins who had a .16 on the PBT. His purple strip indicated a BAC over .08 percent.

For the record, a fellow officer who had not been drinking drove each of these men home. I said good-bye and wished the officers good luck in the morning.Representatives from the company that makes the Guardian Angel said the strips have been tested by two independent labs, and both approved the product.

“It’s been proven in a lab to be 99.9 percent accurate,” said Adam Handelsman, a company spokesman. “We’ve had a lot of great responses from the police.”

The Guardian Angel One-Step Alcohol Test has been tested against Breathalyzers in several police departments, and testers were impressed, Handelsman said.

The company takes its reputation seriously. Company president Tony Toranto called the RN&R to get more information about test discrepancies. After hearing a description of the test strip packets purchased at a liquor store on Center Street, Toranto told us the strips (expiration date listed as October 2001) were an older version of the product. The company has updated packaging that would have explained that “pink with purple blotches” should be read as the darker color, purple. But that still didn’t explain the strip that showed no color change for Officer Knight’s .07 percent BAC.

Lt. Donnelly said he applauds any company making a product that causes people to think about their alcohol consumption before they drive. But he also said that devices that measure blood alcohol content accurately are tricky to use, even in ideal circumstances.

“I can’t speculate what might have went wrong,” Donnelly said. “I don’t know if the test is susceptible to hot or cold, or moisture—or if it gets old. My concern is that the test could tell somebody they’re OK to drive when they’re clearly not.”

Guardian Angel makers said that the strips don’t give users permission to drive. Even on the older version of the product, a disclaimer is printed: “It is never safe to drive after drinking alcohol. A test result below .08 percent does not mean that it is safe to drive or that the user will not be cited for DUI. Use this test as only one factor in deciding whether to drive after drinking alcohol.”

The test packet also lists about eight substances that might interfere with the test, including high levels of Vitamin C or tannic acid.

In the end, all agree that it helps to know yourself and your tolerance—or intolerance—to alcohol.

“How do you live with the fact that you’ve taken someone’s life because you wanted to go out partying?” Thompson asked.

And MADD’s Stadler said: "We stand by our basic premise, ‘If you drink, don’t drive.'"