We hear and read about drivers involved in an accident who are later charged with drunken driving, and usually a news report on the accident will say what the driver's blood alcohol level was and what the legal limit for blood alcohol is. A driver might be found to have a level of 0.15, for example, and the legal limit is 0.08. But what do those figures mean? And how do police officers find out if a driver they suspect has been drinking is actually legally drunk? You have probably heard about the Breathalyzer, but may wonder exactly how a person's breath can show how much that person has had to drink.
Police officers use portable breath-testing machines like this one to find out if a driver has a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.
It is important for public safety that drunken drivers be taken off the roads. Of the 42,000 traffic deaths in the United States in 1999, about 38 percent were related to alcohol. Drivers who can pass roadside sobriety tests -- they can touch their noses or walk a straight line -- still might be breaking the legal limit for blood alcohol and be a hazard on the road. So police officers use some of the latest technology to detect alcohol levels in suspected drunken drivers and remove them from the streets.
Many officers in the field rely on breath alcohol testing devices (Breathalyzer is one type) to determine the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) in drunken-driving suspects. In this edition of HowStuffWorks, we will examine the scientific principles and technology behind these breath alcohol testing devices.