New Breath Test Machine for Washington State
Written by John Brangwin
Monday, 01 March 2010 08:00

For about twenty (20) years Washington has used one breath test machine, commonly (although incorrectly) called a breathalyzer. That machine is the BAC DataMaster, manufactured by National Patent Analytical Systems, in Mansfield Ohio. It is the only evidentiary breath test instrument approved for use in the State of Washington. In approximately 2004, this State purchased several compact versions of the machine, but there were very few differences between the two.

In 220 police departments and jails throughout Washington, these machines sit ready to spit out a reading of a driver’s Breath Alcohol Concentration (BrAC) to convict the driver of DUI.

Now, however, the Washington State Patrol (WSP) is planning to bring in a completely different instrument and replace the DataMaster. The new instrument is the Alcotest 9510 manufactured by a German company, Dräger (their name is “Americanized” to become Draeger).

WSP has already purchased 67 of the machines and has them waiting in a basement. Draeger is currently developing firmware (software) to meet WSP’s requirements and to comply with the requirements of RCW 46.61.506 (the law that provides the foundational requirements for a breath test reading to be admitted in court). At a cost of $10,000 each and a need for 253 additional instruments, the State will eventually pay 3.2 million dollars to make the change and that is only for the cost of the instruments themselves. It is difficult to estimate how much it will really cost the State when you include the work hours it will take to implement the change. A number of WSP employees are already working on the implementation, and more are sure to be added. Legal challenges will occur and if the device is approved for use, thousands of law enforcement officers will have to be trained, as well as, prosecutors and judges. I speculate that the true cost may be higher than 10 million dollars.

In today’s economic climate it is a questionable expense when you consider that the DataMaster, while not without problems, has served WSP well and continues to work today.

What’s different about the Alcotest? Almost everything. Instead of using only infrared spectroscopy (IR) to determine BrAC it also uses electrochemical analysis (EC). Essentially it marries the IR technology of the DataMaster with the EC technology of a Portable Breath Test unit. Unfortunately, when you “marry” two different technologies it doesn’t always work out---kind of like trying to put a diesel and a gas engine in the same automobile. Draeger appears to use a software fix to “solve” some of the problems associated with marrying the two technologies, but their method essentially makes the EC analysis useless and negates the alleged benefits of Draeger’s promoted “dual alcohol sensor technology.” Also, the Alcotest’s IR detection is done at 9.5 microns using a pyroelectric detector. The pyroelectric detector is much less sensitive than the lead selenide detector the DataMaster uses. The pyroelectric detector is also much slower. This makes the Alcotest highly prone to report inaccurate and false high readings due to mouth alcohol. The DataMaster uses two filters and checks for ethanol (alcohol) at 3.37 microns and 3.44 microns.

Woods & Brangwin, PLLC has requested WSP to produce thousands of pages of government records through a Public Records Request (the State equivalent of a Freedom of Information Act request). We, along with law firms in the Seattle area, such as “Cowan|Kirk|Gaston”, “Fox|Bowman|Duarte”, “The Bianchi Law Firm” and others, will rigorously examine the Alcotest. We will also thoroughly review the selection criteria used by WSP to choose this instrument over breath test instruments from other manufacturers, including National Patent’s newest DataMaster, the DataMaster DMT.

So far, WSP’s movement towards the Alcotest has been done in secret. Despite having a web site with thousands of pages of information about breath testing and toxicology, as of the writing of this article, there is nothing on WSP’s website about Draeger or the Alcotest. WSP has a real quandary on its hands. To promote Draeger’s Alcotest they necessarily have to disparage their current instrument that’s still in use, the DataMaster. If nothing is wrong with the DataMaster why are they spending millions of dollars to replace it? If something is wrong with the DataMaster then how can courts continue to allow drivers to be convicted using that evidence?

Our education and evaluation on this instrument begins before it is even in use in Washington and will continue in detail. The citizens of North Central Washington can count on Woods & Brangwin, PLLC to be knowledgeable and skilled on the Draeger Alcotest instrument.

John Brangwin is a partner in the Wenatchee law firm “Woods & Brangwin, PLLC.” John is certified to operate and calibrate the BAC DataMaster and his firm owns an instrument (Serial No. 921086). A licensed attorney since 1997, John concentrates his practice in defending those accused of crimes, especially DUI. He is an active member of the prestigious National College for DUI Defense.