Why You Don't Want A Breathalyzer In Your Car

The car is running, the doors are locked, and the car horn is bellowing into the winter night, alerting every neighbor to my enormous and noisy mistake.

It’s cold out, man. And that’s why the car’s running; I’m heating it up to drive my partner’s daughter a few miles down the road to her dad’s house. That trip, however, is put on hold until I can get into my car -- the car that has a breathalyzer on the ignition that I haven’t blown into since starting it and is now on full alarm freakout.

You see, I got that well-deserved, court-appointed interlock device (breathalyzer) in my car because I’m a multiple DWI offender. That damn thing is screaming bloody murder because while the car is running, the device requires breath tests at random times, and upon alert of a random test, if I don’t blow into the device, the car horn starts blowing; not once or twice, but every other second, with some honks lasting for several seconds.

And no, I don’t have a spare key.

This goes on for half an hour, until a police officer arrives, listens to my tale told with a calmness that I’m not feeling inside, and finally jimmies the driver’s side door open. I blow into the device, pass the test under watchful officer-eyes, and silence the alarm threatening to drive me crazier than a shithouse rat, if doesn’t embarrass me to death first.

This is only one example of the fun awaiting anyone willing to drive under the influence -- risking their safety and the safety of others -- and roll the dice on getting caught. The fun, as it were, goes much further and deeper than that.

There’s the fun hinted above: you have to blow into the device to start the car, and blow into the device at random intervals -- usually every 5-15 minutes. And of course, for the car to start, you’ve got to blow triple zeros. Here’s one way the fun gets heightened -- it’s not just beer, wine, and liquor that register on the breathalyzer. Oh no, my friend. Alcohol is in all sorts of stuff, such as mouthwash and even the vanilla in your Dunkin Donuts french vanilla coffee.

Check this out -- some synthetic sweeteners show up too. Any ingredient that ends in “...ol” or “...yl” is sniffed out by the breathalyzer, registering as alcohol. I found this out the hard way while eating an apple-filled doughnut and blowing for a random alert. The apple filling, turns out, has a whole bunch of synthetic sweetener in it. Thankfully, what I ate only showed up as a small amount and didn’t require me to stop my car. After blowing the 0.04 for the doughnut, I immediately washed my mouth out with water. In just a couple of minutes the breathalyzer chirped again, I blew, and triple zeros showed on the LCD display.

Another way to keep yourself entertained with your very own breathalyzer is to make certain to put the device into “power save” mode when you shut off your car. Forget to do that after coming home from work at night and the next morning you’ll likely find that your car battery is dead. Sounds fun, right? Well it gets better.

The device records more than your blood/alcohol content via your breath; it also tracks your miles traveled, making certain your mileage is consistent with the time and expected use of your car. And don’t go messing with the device such as, say, unplugging it. The device knows. Mind you, in your recorded use-data, a dead battery can be perceived as unplugging the device.

So, any time you do anything to your car, whether it’s bring it to your mechanic for maintenance, or replace the dead battery like I did, you have to notify the device manufacturer immediately. Otherwise, your device records, what can be, some suspicious-looking data that gets shared with the state in which your privilege to drive teeters precariously on whether or not you behave.

Now, every month you’ve got to bring your car to the authorized breathalyzer dealer. There the device is removed and the data on it from the past month is sent to the manufacturer, which then shares that data with the state you are hoping lets you keep your license.

I haven’t even gone into the expense of leasing the device -- the bulk of which I’ll spare you -- leaving you only with my total cost which reached about $1500 for the year of my mandated lease. For a guy like me, that’s a large sum of money.

Then there’s learning the correct way to blow into the device. My experience with interlock devices is limited to one model from one manufacturer. However, I’m willing to wager that most devices work and act similarly. To get my car started, and to keep it running free from relentless horn-honking, I learned the correct breathing pattern: blow into the device for a four-count (the device beeps), inhale through the device for a two-count, and blow for another count or two until it vibrates. In a moment, the device sniffs out your breath and displays your blood alcohol content (BAC).

Fun fact -- on two occasions, my BAC test results after eating a banana while driving showed up as a 0.03.

Everything about a breathalyzer, or interlock device, is a super-fun. For instance, after a particularly cold winter night, you may have to sit in your parked car with the frozen breathalyzer under your coat until it thaws enough to breathe through it. Living in New England, I spent plenty of winter mornings sitting still in a metal box that stays outside every night and snuggling up to a frozen device.

No matter what kind of hassle the breathalyzer was (my time has been served), every frustrating, embarrassing, taxing, exhausting, maddening moment was well-deserved. That I’m allowed to drive at all is a privilege I’m so very grateful for. As I write this, the device has been off my vehicle for six days. Thus far, every time I’ve gone to start, or after I’ve stopped, the car engine I’ve looked for the old electronic fun-box. But that’s a box o’ fun that I won’t be seeing ever again: I stopped drinking five and half years ago and am tired of that brand of fun.