For more than the past 20 years, those arrested on suspicion of DUI in and around Seattle, after the preliminary roadside sobriety tests, were generally hauled off to a police or sheriff's station or State Patrol division where they were asked to blow into a machine that somewhat resembles a Commodore 64.
That machine, a Datamaster, took the breath alcohol content (BrAC) reading to be used against the driver in court. In the coming weeks, the State Patrol will begin moving jailhouse breath analysis into the 21st Century. Out with the old, in with the new. Well, not that new. The "new" machine has been around since the mid-nineties.
For those accused of a DUI, the use of the new machine–the Dräger Alcotest 9510–comes as mixed news. The Datamaster machines uses a liquid solution for sample comparison (external standard) mixed locally by analysts at the Washington State Toxicology Lab. This solution must be monitored for temperature and checked regularly by technicians. If the technicians or scientists in charge of the solution do not follow these protocols, a defendant could challenge the results as inaccurate. In early 2008, three King County District Court judges issued a bitter ruling against the State Toxicology Lab's management of the Datamaster, stating that lab engaged in unacceptable and unscientific practices that compromised breath-test readings.
Some five months later, the machines once again came under fire, as a group of Seattle Municipal Court judges found that the Washington State Patrol Toxicology lab had committed at least 150 errors regarding the Datamaster.
The Alcotest 9510 does not have the same sort of dependence on a liquid standard. It uses a dry gas that contains a known concentration of alcohol and doesn't depend on the overworked and historically sloppy Toxicology Lab. The Lab analysts do not need to create the comparison gas, it will be purchased.
If the Datamaster opened the door to challenge a lab's procedures and protocols on the issue of the external standard, it seems that the Alcotest slams it shut. The Alcotest features Microsoft Windows and a touch screen as well, which could be a positive or negative.
The biggest improvement over the DataMaster is the Draeger's ability to measure breath temperatures and adjust the reading to be more accurate than the DataMaster, which ignores peoples temperature and assumes an average. This assumption can result in an error of at least 6.5% and sometimes up to 25% variance from the true alcohol reading.
During the testing procedures, officers will input where the driver was drinking, whether the driver put anything in their mouth after being arrested, the crime that forms the basis of the arrest, and whether the driver was involved in a crash.
The machines also have the capability to send real-time information over the Internet, but the State Patrol will not use that capability until it establishes security protocols. Until then, the State Patrol will continue to upload BAC information to its database weekly. The Patrol has purchased 83 Draegers and need to purchase about 200 more to implement them statewide. The first 83 will be installed in northern and southeast Washington, so those accused of DUI in King, Pierce, or Snohomish counties are still likely to breath into the DUI dinosaur for the near future.
But, as the Datamasters are no longer being produced, their extinction will come.