- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Robert Borkenstein, who died Aug. 10, is not a name known to many outside the insular realm of forensic science. But, if you've ever been through a sobriety check, you almost certainly know of his invention the Breathalyzer.
Though not put into wide use for decades after its 1958 invention and descended from an earlier device called the Drunk-o-meter, the Breathalyzer eventually became the standard-bearer for objective roadside sobriety evaluations. Instead of coordination tests that many of us might not be able to pass even completely sober let alone late at night with a police car's lights flashing all around us, or an officer's subjective determination that a motorist "looks drunk" or is "acting funny" the Breathalyzer subjects suspected boozers to a scientific measurement of the alcohol concentration in their bloodstream. A person's blood-alcohol content (BAC) is now the means by which a person is judged to be impaired or not. Most states set the legal threshold for drunk driving at .10 BAC the level that corresponds to meaningful impairment of motor reflexes and judgment as determined by evidence gathered by Mr. Borkenstein and other researchers since the 1960s.
Its accuracy and portability make it possible for the police to quickly determine who should be on the road, and who should go downtown for more involved tests. Still, the rightness of random sobriety checkpoints and searches of motorists who have not necessarily done anything to arouse suspicion remain important issues. Also, there remains ample room for debate over what precisely ought to constitute the legal BAC threshold for intoxication. (Some groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have been pushing for BAC levels defining "drunk driving" as low as .04, equivalent to one drink in an hour).
In the meantime, while we may not like what the machine has to say, the machine doesn't lie.

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