- The Washington Times - Monday, April 14, 2008

FORT JACKSON, S.C. (AP) - Hoping to save a life when a buddy’s had too much to drink, 767 soldiers and civilians on the Army’s largest training post now carry personal alcohol detectors in their cars or on their key chains.

Fort Jackson’s safety director, Sean O’Brian, has been handing out the 4-inch devices since the first of the year.

“It’s a good way to not get into a confrontation with a buddy, in case they’ve been drinking,” said Master Sgt. James Smith. “It’s impartial. It lets you say, ‘Hey, let’s let this be our guide.’ ”

Although there hasn’t been a big problem with drunken driving on the installation — there were 10 alcohol-related accidents in a recent 12-month span — there’s still too many in Mr. O’Brian’s opinion.

Fort Jackson is one of eight Army installations that have begun using the pocket-sized detectors, base spokesman Pat Jones said.

Staff Sgt. Tenesia Vann at Fort Benning, Ga., said she grabbed half of dozen of the tiny breath testers when she first arrived at the base in January.

“If I go to a gathering where people are drinking, I want to be able to hand them out. I think they could be a deciding factor in convincing people not to get behind the wheel,” said the 35-year-old administrative assistant. “I keep them at home in case I have people over for a cookout.”

Fort Benning, home to multiple infantry units and the service’s Airborne and Ranger training schools, received 155,000 of the devices in May. Officials have handed out 100,000 of them.

Yvonne Wilbanks, alcohol and drug control officer for the post, has worked for 25 years trying to persuade soldiers not to drink and drive. Handing out the devices has been “one of the better things that we’ve done,” she said. All Army bases mandate safety lectures for soldiers, while others try to emphasize the message through posters or offering no-questions-asked rides home should someone have too many drinks.

The Army, with more than 524,000 men and women on active duty, is the nation’s largest military service. Besides Benning and Jackson, other installations trying out the detectors include Fort Lee, Va.; Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; Fort Greely, Alaska; Fort Dix, N.J.; and Fort Sam Houston and Corpus Christie Army Depot in Texas.

In South Carolina, the detectors come amid a state legislator’s proposal that would allow members of the armed forces younger than 21 the right to buy alcohol even though it’s in contrast to the military’s efforts to diminish underage drinking and related accidents.

Five years ago, there were 23 alcohol-related accidents at Fort Jackson, where 55,000 to 65,000 soldiers pass through the gates annually. None were fatal, Mr. O’Brian said.

Sgt. Smith, 41, who has been in the Army for 23 years, said he wished he had the device earlier in his career. At Fort Jackson, he is in charge of a dozen drill sergeants and their 240 basic training recruits.

“I think it’s an excellent idea to ‘police up’ yourself and your buddies. I keep it in my car,” he said.

The detectors are not a self-diagnostic tool. They require a buddy’s help.

Known as “Breathscan” tubes, they’re carried inside the yellow plastic key fob designed for military use, said Patrice McMorrow, marketing director for Akers Biosciences Inc. in Thorofare, N.J., which produces the devices. They aren’t marketed directly to the public, she said, although some might be found for sale on the Web.

Mr. O’Brian, who is in charge of giving safety lectures to all new soldiers and the 4,400 civilian workers who come to Fort Jackson, got 2,500 of the devices to hand out along with information designed to puncture myths about drinking and driving.

For example, he said, “Coffee doesn’t make you sober. It just wakes you up. Another myth is that you know when you’re too drunk to drive. You don’t.”

That’s where a friend with the tiny device comes in.

To use it, soldiers simply pull a cardboard tube out of a yellow plastic container. Pressing the outside of the tube breaks a small vial containing yellow crystals. The drinker holds the tube vertically and blows hard for about 12 seconds. Then, the nonreusable tube must be placed on a flat surface.

After two minutes, the color of the crystals detects whether a person has a blood-alcohol level of 0.04 percent or higher, which Mr. O’Brian said is enough to “slow your reflexes and impair your judgment.” The crystals remain yellow if no alcohol has been consumed.

A nondrinker should administer the test because of the multistep process.

In 1984, South Carolina raised the drinking age to 21 from 18 to comply with federal law. Many states, including South Carolina, have also adopted blood-alcohol limits of 0.08 percent for drivers.

“We probably will never know the number [of people] we’ve saved. Unfortunately, we know it when we don’t,” Mr. O’Brian said.

The personal detector, he said, is one of several initiatives being employed to cut back on drunken driving. There is also a designated-driver program offering free nonalcoholic drinks to those behind the wheel.

At Fort Benning, as on many Army bases, Ms. Wilbanks said safety lectures stress a “triple zero philosophy: zero drinking under 21, zero drinking while on duty and zero drinking if driving.”

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