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BACtrack portable breathalyzer could be a life - or career - saver

By Jim Bray
August 7, 2014

Tablets and smartphones continue to be platforms of choice for millions of people on the go, and the hardware has spawned an entire industry of apps and products designed to make life with the device even more pleasant, productive - or even safe.

The BACtrack mobile breathalyzer is one of these devices, a small handheld unit that can fit in your pocket easily, and which interacts via Bluetooth with a free app to let you know when you've had enough liquid fun. 

Who hasn't been out quaffing a few and wondered just how close you are to blowing over the legal limit in your area? It's a legitimate concern, not only to help you avoid any unpleasant and/or embarrassing imperial entanglements, but to help keep your friends, neighbors and strangers safe from you while you're on your way home.

That's where the BACtrack comes in. This little handheld device, accompanied by its app, lets you quickly and easily estimates your Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) using what the manufacturer calls "police-grade Xtend Fuel Cell Sensor Technology."  You can use the Android or iOS app (I used it on my iPad Air) to not only tell you how whiff your breath is, and how much of a hazard you may be on the road, but you can also save your results, estimate when your BAC will return to zero, and even share your results (a drinking contest, perhaps?). All for $130.

The manufacturer says the BACtrack can detect even trace amounts of booze in your blood - as low as 0.001 per cent, they claim, and since you can save and track your results you should be able to use the thing to learn how much you can drink without exceeding your local legal limit. I daresay it isn't so much meant as a way to avoid the law as it is a method for discovering your own limits so you can quaff armed with your own general tolerance limits. For example, you may find that it takes you three drinks to hit the limit - so even if you don't have the BACtrack with you, the facts should remain the same using that rule of thumb.

When the BACtrack's battery needs to be charged, the app will inform you. However, the manufacturer claims that most users get about 150 tests from a fully charged breathalyzer before recharging is necessary. Charging the unit is accomplished easily via USB.

That's where I fall down. I usually keep the thing in my backpack, so any time I'm packing - as long as my iPad is with me to pair with it (and it usually is) - the BACtrack is close at hand. The problem is that I'm not great at planning ahead, so a couple of times I've discovered to my chagrin that the BACtrack's battery had run down - and of course I didn't have a cable with me with which to recharge it. Fortunately, since I've learned via the BACtrack what I can expect in the blood alcohol content department, on average, I can still have a "guesstimate" based on experience. It's not ideal, but it could still help in an emergency  if you've been paying attention when you've used it before.

The app also has the ability to include photos, notes, and drink logs, and you can share your results privately via text message or publicly via social networking. You can also choose not to save your data.

The device is child's play to use. Just wait 15 minutes from your last drink or food, then fire it and the app up and the app walks you right through the process, counting down to when it wants you to blow (there's a weird "thunk" noise during the blowing process), and once it's satisfied with your sample it analyzes it (in only a few seconds), then gives you the good or bad news - including its estimate of when you'll be legal to drive again or how long it will take before you're completely sober again (in my case, it said "the year 2300").

It even has a "guess your BAC" feature.

This isn't just a handy device for testing your own consumption when you're bar hopping, of course. You can offer it to your house party guests as well -  heck, you could use the "guess your BAC" feature to make some money off your guests via friendly wagering! The only potential drawback, it seems, is that if you don't change mouthpieces (it comes with three), your guests might get each others' cooties.

The BACtrack seems to work extremely well, but one thing I didn't have for my test was a benchmark: while it might tell me I'm blowing a particular percentage, I had no idea how that would compare to the equipment the police use - which would undoubtedly be the reference models the establishment would use.

To see if I could get such a benchmark, I contacted the Calgary Police Service because I knew they've done the "drink till you're over the limit" test with other media types over the years. I hoped to get together with them and use their equipment side by side with the BACtrack to compare its accuracy. Unfortunately, they never responded to my call. Too busy filling the city's coffers via their speed guns, I guess.

Fortunately, Car and Driver Magazine did a head to head test of four portable breathalyzers a few months ago, using a Lifeloc FC10 - which they refer to as "a professional, fuel-cell-type breathalyzer similar to those used by police" - as a benchmark. They claimed the Lifeloc was calibrated by the manufacturer before their test, so I can only assume their results were accurate. Would the folks at Car and Driver lie?

C&D's results showed that the BACtrack was extremely accurate, only starting to lose it when your blood alcohol content "rises deep into the Leaving Las Vegas zone," according to the magazine. The downside was that the BACtrack was by far the most expensive of the four gadgets they tested (which ranged from a paltry $15 up to the BACtrack), but it (and the $30 BACtrack keychain model they tested as well) did indeed work as advertised - as opposed to the other two devices tested, which the magazine reported were basically useless.

It appears, then, that the BACtrack does a good job of helping you monitor your alcohol intake and telling you when it's time to park the car and call a cab. And that could save lives. And fines. And embarrassment.

The BACtrack comes with three mouthpieces and is compatible with later model iPhones and iPads, as well as the Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4 and other Android 4.0 devices that use Bluetooth 4.3. And don't forget to download the app!

Copyright 2014 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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