The Washington State Patrol is replacing its old breath-test machines with sleek, fast, new $9,500 devices that are used to test drivers arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol.
Like the old devices, the new one measures alcohol in the lungs by analyzing exhaled breath.
“It’s a measure in the breath-alcohol concentration and if it’s at or above 0.08 it can be used as evidence of DUI,” said State Patrol Lt. Rob Sharpe, who heads the agency’s Impaired Driving Section.
Sharpe said they have purchased the breath-test “instruments” at $9,500 each, and need to purchase 200 more to replace the old DataMasters devices.
Sharpe said that after learning about five years ago that manufacture of the DataMaster machines was coming to an end, the State Patrol launched a search for a suitable replacement.
He said they looked at four different machines before deciding on the Dräger Alcotest 9510.
According to the Dräger website, the machine is only used by law enforcement.
Brian Shaffer, bid and tender manager for Dräger, said in an email that law-enforcement agencies in New York, Connecticut, California and Washington, D.C., are using the Alcotest 9510. Demonstrating the Alcotest machine inside the State Patrol’s South Seattle office, Sterkel swiped his breath-test operator card on the machine’s card reader to begin the testing process. Then he swiped a test state driver’s license on the card reader to download the driver’s information.
On the touch-screen readout, Sterkel was asked where the suspect had been drinking, whether the driver had put anything in his or her mouth after being arrested, what crime the person was suspected of and whether the driver was involved in a DUI-related crash.
Then a prompt indicated it was time for the subject to blow into a hose attached to the machine. The screen lit up and gave instructions on when to blow and whether the sample was successfully captured.
In a matter of minutes Sterkel’s breath test came back clear of alcohol.
While the new machine allows law enforcement to send real-time data over the Internet, Sharpe said the State Patrol will not begin using this feature until security protocols are established on sending the information.
The State Patrol says the new machines utilize a dry gas standard instead of a liquid solution to verify that the instrument is working properly. For years, liquid solutions have had to be mixed locally by scientists, monitored for temperature, and checked regularly by technicians.
The Dräger’s dry gas contains a known concentration of alcohol, allowing the instrument to verify that a suspect’s breath alcohol is being measured accurately and reliably, the State Patrol said.
Sterkel, who works in the State Patrol’s Yakima office, is one of the first troopers in the state to be trained on the new machine.
Only troopers, sheriff’s deputies and police officers certified in the Alcotest will be allowed to use the machines.
Until the state replaces all of the DataMasters, law enforcement will continue using the old technology to test suspected drunken drivers, Sharpe said.
The State Patrol has come under heat in the past for using the DataMaster machines, as well for as their DUI protocols.
In 2008, three King County District Court judges issued a blistering 29-page ruling, saying that the lab engaged in “fraudulent and scientifically unacceptable” practices that have compromised breath-test readings used to prosecute suspected drunken drivers.
The judges found that a “multiplicity of errors,” including how breath-test results were analyzed and verified at the lab, affected thousands of cases in recent years.
Specifically, the judges criticized the work of the former state toxicologist and the former lab manager. The allegations included errors to the way the breath-test machines were calibrated.
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