Is drunk test accurate?

2011-05-25 00:00

CONTROVERSY surrounding the Drager breathalyser test is fast spreading on the South Coast.

A senior local attorney, who wishes to remain anonymous, told The Witness about 12 drunken driving cases that have been withdrawn after he disputed the accuracy of the breathalyser used to test alcohol levels.

The attorney claimed that his success might be the result of irregularities involving the Drager breathalyser test, which is used to measure the volume of alcohol vapour in a drinker’s exhaled breath.

“A large number of my clients, arrested over the December and January period were sent to jail; had to pay bail and then attend a court hearing, only to have the charges dropped in the end,” said the attorney.

He said that when he disputed the accuracy of the Drager, the charges were dropped in all 12 cases. Many clients claimed they were not over the permitted alcohol limit and were in perfect condition to drive.

“The Drager has to be calibrated every few months and I don’t think that this is being done properly. I don’t condone drunken driving, but if there is a problem with the Drager, it needs to be dealt with as soon as possible,” he said.

He said the Drager only tests alcohol levels in the breath and not the blood. The maximum vapour allowed in 0,24 mg per 1 000 ml.

The use of the breathalyser was suspended in January while the legislation is amended by the national Department of Transport.

The Witness learned that the machine’s use was stopped during the phasing out of the SA Bureau of Standards (SABS), which was replaced by the new SA National Standards (SANS).

The Drager now has to meet the specifications of SANS and it is not clear whether products approved by SABS have to be re-evaluated according to the standards of the new body.

The Western Cape High Court is hearing a test case challenging the accuracy of the breathalyser. Drager expert Jurgen Sohege told that court yesterday that no country has ever rejected the equipment as unreliable. He said the equipment is modified to suit the needs of individual countries,

Police spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Zandra Wiid said Port Shepstone police have not experienced any problems with the Drager in the past.

She said that cases are taking longer to process because officers have to take motorists to hospital for blood to be drawn and tested.

“We’ve been doing this ever since the use of the Drager was put on hold. Sometimes, because of the time delay awaiting the results, the case gets provisionally withdrawn, but once the results have been received, new summons are issued if the driver is over the limit,” said Wiid.

Independent calibrator Bob Hayes said the Drager is more accurate and more consistent than blood testing. Hayes calibrates Drager breathalysers for the provincial Road Traffic Inspectorate at six-monthly intervals.

“Allegations about the accuracy of these machines are not true. They comply with the SABS specifications and they are more accurate than blood sampling,” said Hayes.

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