The history of breathalysers

history of breathalysers

Here in the UK, we are under no illusions about drink driving – it is illegal and can land you with a hefty fine, driving ban and/or prison sentence. This is not new legislation, in fact the UK introduced its first laws to tackle drink driving in 1925, where it was declared that it was officially an “offence to be found drunk in charge of ANY mechanically driven vehicle”.

Since then, law enforcement officers have had various different means of catching those who still choose to consume alcohol and then get behind the wheel.

In the early days

The means of testing whether or not a person had consumed too much alcohol to drive were not always very scientific. This used to be based on subjective observations of the individual – i.e. could they walk in a straight line, could they coherently hold a conversation, could the effectively touch their nose with their finger, and so on. Naturally these were subject to challenge and were based on integrity of the officers, so a more robust method was required.

Once scientists discovered that alcohol could be traced in the breath of an individual and within their urine, many years of testing and innovations followed. Many different tests were undertaken, trying to effectively measure the amount of alcohol someone had consumed, by testing:

  • BrAC (breath alcohol concentration), and/or
  • BAC (blood alcohol concentration)

First known breathalysers

In America during the 1930s and 1940s, the amusing (yet appropriately) named “drunkometer”, “intoximeter” and the “alcometer” were all developed. These inventions enabled police to test the amount of alcohol in a person’s breath by collecting expelled breath and combining it with a substance called acidified potassium permangate solution. The way in which this solution reacted enabled officers to assess how much alcohol was in the body.

Things have come a long way since then but the early principles have guided modern breathalyser