In recent years, the popularity of personal breathalyser units has grown enormously. Some countries, like France, insist that all drivers carry breathalysers (either a reusable unit or at least two disposable units) at all times. Advances in technology have meant that you can now buy a portable device that is basically as accurate as a police breathalyser unit for not a lot of money.
Berkshire-based AlcoSense was founded about 13 years ago, and has grown to become one of the world’s most respected breathalyser manufacturers. The company has won a swag of awards for its range of single-use and reusable breathalysers, both for performance and design. Overall, it’s a genuine British success story.
We’ve been trialling the top-of-the-range unit from AlcoSense, called the Ultra, over recent weeks. It’s priced at £250, which sounds expensive at first glance. But what are you getting for your money?
The AlcoSense Ultra uses exactly the same size and specification sensor (called a fuel cell) as the £2,000 hand-held breathalyser units used by police forces in the UK, Europe and America. It also includes 100 mouthpieces (£40 worth when you eventually need replacements), and can be plugged into a PC to record results. Fuel cell breathalysers are the most accurate of any type of breathalyser, which is why the police use them for both hand-held units carried by patrols and the larger units located at police stations.
That sounds like overkill for a personal breathalyser, and let’s face it – you probably don’t need to record your test results in a spreadsheet or table. But if you are an employer and want/need to test a large number of employees on a regular basis, and want/need to record those results to ensure adherence to your company policies, then it would be perfect. Or if you just want the reassurance that you’re buying the most accurate unit on the market, this one could be just the ticket.
The Ultra is the flagship of the AlcoSense breathalyser range, which also includes two cheaper fuel-cell units, the mid-spec AlcoSense Pro (£150) and the entry-level AlcoSense Excel (£100). Below that are a number of units that use different technology – cheaper to buy, but not as accurate. The company claims that the Ultra is slightly more accurate than the Pro, which is slightly more accurate than the Excel, but that all three are more than accurate enough for personal use requirements.
As well as the police-spec sensor, the Ultra comes with 100 one-way mouthpieces (about £40 worth), which reflects its workplace suitability, and a neat protective case (an extra £10 on the cheaper models). The Pro comes with five mouthpieces, while the Excel comes with five simple blow tubes rather than the more sophisticated mouthpieces. AlcoSense says that you can re-use the mouthpieces, but you must make sure that they are completely dry to prevent moisture getting into the electronics. Replacement mouthpieces come in a pack of 25 for £10. The blow tubes should really only be used once, and they are sold in a pack of 25 for £5.
It’s important to also remember that any breathalyser unit, regardless of make and model, needs to be re-calibrated annually to remain accurate. The AlcoSense units will give you an on-screen reminder, and you’ll have to send the unit back to the manufacturer every year for calibration at a cost of £25. The same will apply to other brands.
Auto Express conducted a group test including the Excel and Pro a few months ago, and found that both units were outstanding. The Pro was slightly more accurate but that the Excel was still very accurate and better value for money.
Putting the AlcoSense Ultra to the test
We had the chance to compare the Ultra side by side against a freshly-calibrated police unit made by Draeger, as used by many police forces around the world. The two units were tested multiple times using a pre-mixed solution of water and ethanol, and produced almost identical results.
Just to be sure, we also conducted a human trial here in The Car Expert office. Having each had a beer or two at lunchtime *for science*, three of us blew into the machines later in the afternoon (ideally, you shouldn’t take a reading within 90 minutes of drinking as the results could still be changing up or down quite rapidly). Once again, the results from the police unit and the AlcoSense Ultra were almost identical.
As an added bonus, the Ultra was easier to blow into, requiring a smaller lungful of air and less effort than the police unit. If you do blow over the legal limit, another handy feature is an estimate of how long it will take you to drop back below the limit and be able to drive.
Any breath test unit will lose accuracy over time, whether its a police unit or a personal device – hence the annual calibration requirement. The AlcoSense fuel cell units have a built-in system to ensure that the unit will not under-read, so that any variation will only over-read. In other words, the unit may tell you that your blood alcohol level is 0.09% (over the limit) when you’re actually at 0.07% (legal in England/Wales/NI), but never the other way round.
Why should you buy a personal breathalyser unit?
Official figures from the Department for Transport show that nearly 20% of all drink-drive incidents happen the morning after a night out. A lot of the time, drivers are surprised that they are still over the limit, especially if they don’t have a hangover. The message about not driving home if you’re out drinking has been rammed home for many years, but warnings about driving the next morning are less familiar.
While you may know what the legal limit for blood alcohol is, how well do you know your own body’s tolerance for alcohol? How confident are you that you’re not over the limit the morning after a big night out? A hangover is not a suitable indication that you’re still over the limit – you may have little to no alcohol in your system but still be quite dehydrated and feeling poorly. Conversely, you may feel fine but still be intoxicated.
How often have you got into a car the morning after the night before and not really known (or even thought about) whether you should really be driving?
The main benefit of a personal unit like those made by AlcoSense and others is the reassurance and peace of mind to know that you’re legal (or not) to drive, without having to guess. It’s certainly a lot easier than trying to remember how many drinks you had, and how many units of alcohol that equates to, and how long ago that was, and whether you had anything to eat, and so on, and then guessing whether you’re OK to get behind the wheel again.
Having never used a personal breathalyser the morning after a drinking session, I’ve spent the last few weeks doing a quick check on the AlcoSense Ultra in the morning if I’ve been out the night before and had a few drinks. While it appears that my life hasn’t been exciting enough to register a positive score on the unit, it has been surprisingly satisfying to know that I am well under the legal limit rather than just assuming I was OK.
Ultimately, it only takes one unplanned night out to potentially change your life for good. There are plenty of stories of people who have been caught driving under the influence of alcohol and seen their lives spiral downwards rapidly afterwards – even if they avoided an accident while driving drunk. Losing your licence can easily mean losing your job, and it can be a slippery slope from there to financial and other problems.
How much is your job worth, how much is your car worth, how much are your kids worth, how much is your marriage worth? Regardless of how sober you feel, is it really worth risking any or all of those things? A personal breathalyser unit might seem expensive at first glance, but it’s pocket change compared to what it could save you.
Good points: The best unit on the market, bar none.
Bad points: Ultra is probably overkill for personal use; Pro or Excel models are cheaper and still perfectly acceptable for personal use.