If you’re looking to start a conversation about blood alcohol concentration (BAC) or drink driving at an event, using a breathalyser as a prop can be a tempting option. But in addition to the equipment being expensive and requiring regular calibration to be accurate, it’s not a great strategy if you’re trying to get people to reduce their drinking. Find out what other, potentially more effective, tactics you could use.
Because the bigger problem we’re tackling is to reduce the harms from alcohol, inadvertently sending the message that if you’re not driving it doesn’t matter how much you’re drinking could undermine the message we’re really trying to send.
Focusing on changing the drinking culture at events for everyone, not just drivers, can have a greater positive impact on the community by addressing all of the harms beyond drink driving that come from risky drinking.
Some people may be dissuaded from driving if they find out their BAC is 0.05% or over, however it’s also possible that a BAC of 0.04% might encourage someone who didn’t intend to drive to do so. Potential drivers may mistakenly believe that there’s little or no risk if they drive within the legal limit of 0.05% – but just because it’s the law doesn’t mean it’s the safest choice.
Degrees of impairment may be demonstrated even at low BACs. The current limit for BAC has been debated in the past, and when Victoria Police suggested a limit of BAC 0.02% the ADF supported a trial of the idea. Some research suggests that reducing the BAC limit may reduce alcohol-related road accidents.¹ ² ³ Countries like Sweden, Norway, Japan, and recently China have limits of 0.02% BAC for driving.
Even when a driver is informed about BAC, calculating it without using a breathalyser every time is pretty tricky. It’s not just a person’s age, weight, and sex but also how much they’ve had to eat that day, their amount of body fat, and their level of experience with alcohol.
Although personal smartphone breathalysers have recently hit the market for $50-$100, their accuracy varies and the average person seems unlikely to purchase one. Human error is also an important factor when considering the value of a personal breathalyser. For example, if someone hasn’t waited long enough before testing they could have a legal BAC when leaving a venue and an illegal one 30 minutes later. Even if an expensive and properly calibrated breathalyser is used correctly, it isn’t perfectly accurate – even the police will perform a blood test to follow up a breath test that returns an over the limit result.
The safest option is not to drive when you drink – and even when you’re not driving, drinking to excess is still risky.
Breathalysers at licensed venues have reportedly been occasionally used as competitions between mates to get the highest ‘score’.4 There are concerns that personal smartphone breathalysers are sometimes used in the same way. A BAC ‘competition’ could be incorporated into one of the many drinking game apps that are already out there.
Many people might not know how long it takes to get back to a zero BAC after a night of drinking. Factors like what your BAC was when you went to sleep, how long you slept, and how healthy your liver is all affect your BAC the next morning. In some cases, it can take a full day or longer for BAC to return to zero. The Centre for Road Safety NSW says that ‘many people are booked for drink driving the next day’.
Even if they were responsible the night before, driving home after staying at a friend’s house or going back to pick up their car could be risky. It could also be mixing intoxication with fatigue.
Not sure breath testing is going to achieve your objectives? Here are some alternatives according to different goals:
If you still think that breath testing is the best option for your community, consider working with the following organisations.
If you do use a breathalyser consider also promoting some of the key messages listed above under ‘Why breath testing is risky’.
Use this sample quiz to educate people about the effects of alcohol on BAC. Pick and choose questions that you like, and add questions that are relevant to your specific event – just make sure that you’ve got them backed up with evidence, and don’t over-exaggerate the harms.