Breathalyser under scrutiny

2011-05-23 22:07

Cape Town - Legal Aid authorities have appointed a top-level legal team to challenge the validity and reliability of the controversial breathalyser Dräger Alcotest.

The accuracy of the apparatus, which measures the volume of alcohol vapour in a drinker's exhaled breath, has been in question for a number of years.

A test case, involving alleged offender Clifford Joseph Hendricks, started in the Western Cape High Court on Monday.

Hendricks pleaded not guilty to a charge of driving while the alcohol vapour in his exhaled breath was 0.95mg, on the evening of January 23 last year.

The maximum allowed is 0.24mg.

Senior prosecuting counsel Billy Downer explained to the court that offenders were initially charged with driving under the influence of liquor as the main charge, and with driving with an excessive blood-alcohol level as the alternative charge.

He said continuing liquor-related carnage on the roads over the years had led to sophistication in the formulation of charges and the equipment used to bring offenders to book.

In the 1960s, the maximum blood-alcohol level was 0.15%, which was reduced to 0.08% then to 0.05%.

He said the modern Dräger equipment focused on alcohol vapour in the breath "and not alcohol levels in the blood", although blood testing was still valid.


Hendricks pleaded not guilty to the charge and denied that he was driving the vehicle in question at the time.

In a plea explanation, read to the court by senior counsel Derek Mitchell, he claimed that the sections of the National Road Traffic Act, under which he was charged, failed to conform to the rule of law and were thus unconstitutional.

He contended that these parts of the act were vague, arbitrary and capricious.

He said breath-alcohol had no scientifically-established direct correlation with a driver's motor or perceptual skills, or ability to drive.

He contended that the correlation between breath-alcohol and blood-alcohol levels differed from person to person, and that a conviction or acquittal may thus depend entirely on the type of test used.

He claimed this was arbitrary and unreasonable.

The matter continues on Tuesday.

See the related story: Drunk driving arrest - cop threatened

  • iqanda - 2011-05-23 22:30

    the da needs to stop campaigning and start clamping down on drunk driving in the cape, thsi is gettign terrible now.

      CorbZA - 2011-05-23 23:33

      I moved to CT 3 weeks ago... I have never seen so many police patrolling the streets at night (including 1st world countries)! Friday or Saturday nights in particular (obviously). On most nights, I'll hear them pulling over a car, while I'm lying in bed.

  • Warslat - 2011-05-23 22:32

    Breathaliser isn't supposed to be 100% accurate but rather a general guide as to whether a more reliable blood test should be done

      Looter - 2011-05-24 03:34

      and if levels are confirmed, at least 2 years in prison(imo), as its the first step to murder! People that drive drunk are usually the ones that dice at the robots too! To much ego and to little brains, grow a pair!

      BigD - 2011-05-24 06:11

      @Warslat. That is not true to what I have read. I read that they have allowed the breath test as final test. There was a dispute some years back in court where the system was disputed. The argument was that the system was SABS approved but the system used was not the unit sent to SABS. They did refer that each unit had to be tested at SABS. There are two units used at road blocks, one is hand held for screening and if the screen is positive then the larger unit is then used for final test for court. How accurate the final unit is is the bone of contension here, I think. The authorities had to use another method as the blood taken for test was flawed due to systems needed to ensure blood was not tampered with etc plus resources to process the blood. Also, once the person was deemed to be over the limit they had to be taken to a certain place to have blood taken within a certain time etc. The system failed as one can imagine due to many factors and people had more than a fair chance to get off. Now modern technology is used and under spot light again. The traffic authorities have such a hard task getting a conviction using either method that they will eventually throw their hands up and say why bother.

      Creeky - 2011-05-24 07:51

      I once was pulled over, after having a Sip of Beer, straight after playing a hard game of Touch Rugby on the beach. The reading showd that I was 2 X OVER the limit. I was taken to the RTI offices, and told to wait for an HOUR for a 2nd Breatherlizer test, which hardly showd a reading. How many people get the chance to WAIT for that HOUR after ONE BEER????? Meantime they get thrown in JAIL un-neccessaraly..... Get RID if the Breathalizer BLOW JOB!!!

      BigMoose - 2011-05-24 08:46

      A 59-year-old man undergoing weight loss with very low calorie diets (VLCD) attempted to drive a car, which was fitted with an alcohol ignition interlock device, but the vehicle failed to start. Because the man was a teetotaller, he was surprised and upset by this result. VLCD treatment leads to ketonemia with high concentrations of acetone, acetoacetate and beta-hydroxybutyrate in the blood. The interlock device determines alcohol (ethanol) in breath by electrochemical oxidation, but acetone does not undergo oxidation with this detector. However, under certain circumstances acetone is reduced in the body to isopropanol by hepatic alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH). The ignition interlock device responds to other alcohols (e.g. methanol, n-propanol and isopropanol), which therefore explains the false-positive result. This 'side effect' of ketogenic diets needs further discussion by authorities when people engaged in safety-sensitive work (e.g. bus drivers and airline pilots) submit to random breath-alcohol tests. Before you start making stupid comments Read more:

      Warslat - 2011-05-25 12:06

      @ BigD Since it's a blood\alcohol limit that the limit is based on a blood alcohol test is what it must be based on. If it were an alcohol\air test then you'd be right. A recent type of test (Dager I think they call it) it supposed to be accurate and admissable in court. I don't believe any breath test is accurate enough to make or break peoples lives. For instance, if I were to take a sip of vodka 10 seconds before taking a breathaliser test, the reading would be far higher than any blood test taken any time between then and the next 2 hours. In most countries breathaliser tests are not admissable in court but merely used as a guide towards a more accurate test type. Breathing pattern can also significantly affect breath test results. One study found that the BAC readings of subjects decreased 11–14% after running up one flight of stairs and 22–25% after doing so twice. Another study found a 15% decrease in BAC readings after vigorous exercise or hyperventilation. Hyperventilation for 20 seconds has been shown to lower the reading by approximately 32%. On the other hand, holding one's breath for 30 seconds can increase the breath test result by about 28%. Just because a blood test is more difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't be done and tampering with samples isn't restricted to blood tests. Some people have testified that policemen have "demonstrated" how to blow through the tube before insisting the testee blow afterwards.

  • ilollipop - 2011-05-24 06:03

    What does this have to do with the DA? The elections are over. Move on. Drunk driving happens all the time all around the country.

  • Darksyde - 2011-05-24 07:35

    They must return the level to 0.08 again. Why arrest someone who had two beers after work? Surely the courts have better things to do than say 'case dismissed'.

  • buzzliteyear - 2011-05-24 07:47

    ZERO DRINK, it is as easy as that, as it is evident that people can not take in moderation and cost lives on our roads. Any drunk driver feels that they can take any law related issue to the constitutional court and fight it for their "rights", yet when they kill people on the road suddenly they are not guilty......Jub Jub for starters should be locked away.

  • - 2011-05-24 08:16

    @ everyone, this is an issue affecting every South African and needs to be debated and commented on. As a result, why not comment on your thoughts more comprehensively, submit an article to, we always enjoy hearing what’s on your mind. Otherwise visit our site and check out our recently released second edition. Stanley Black

      Peter - 2011-05-24 14:55

      You advertise a site that is still under construction.......IDIOT.

  • marguerite - 2011-05-24 08:55

    There is only one company in South Africa that manufacture the blood alcohol test. This test can not be sold to the public. It is sold to SAPS only and in some cases to the municipality in the area (and on tender to Department of Health ofcause). Once you have been pulled over, you are asked to do a breathalyser test. The breathalyser test is then an indication as to whether blood needs to be taken. The person is taken to the nearest police station where they get a case number. The person, together with the case number, is taken to a doctor/hospital where a qualified person such as a doctor or nurse takes the persons blood. Blood is then sent for testing to Forensics. Because of the backlog in the system, testing of blood does take time. The reason this Dragar system won't work, is because it is 1) expensive and 2) the individual has to be taken to a specific centre to be tested. These centres are only in certain areas, therefore, SAPS's cannot easily get to those areas. Blood has to be taken within 2 hours. Sometimes alot of time is wasted and therefore the blood alcohol test does not hold up in court.

      marguerite - 2011-05-24 09:07

      By the way, the blood alcohol kit is the only one that is accurate if the blood has been taken within the given time lines. Tampering is obviously possible, but they will see it immediately because it has a tamper evidence seal on the box.

  • OBZERVER - 2011-05-24 09:37

    Funny how every bar have a parking lot, but none of them have a little bus waiting to take you home... I'll pay extra for a lift home at closing time... Hey Everobody !! Anyone wanna invest in my little business called 'The Vomit Commit' hahaha

  • jock van wyk - 2011-05-24 21:04

    drunk driving is a major cause of deaths and thats a fact

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