State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

Alcohol-Detecting Flashlights Introduced in State College DUI Enforcement

on September 27, 2011 6:59 AM

High-tech flashlights that can help police identify drunk drivers have arrived in State College, borough authorities announced Monday.

In fact, the flashlights -- priced at $700 apiece -- have already been in use here for several months, police confirmed. The devices are part of a multi-year, federally funded research project focused on DUI-enforcement effectiveness, borough police Chief Tom King said.

"This is an extension of the officer's nose," he told local reporters in a press briefing.

The specialized flashlights, known as passive alcohol sensors, appear as normal flashlights. But when one is placed within five to 10 inches of a motorist's mouth, it can detect roughly whether he or she has been drinking lightly, moderately, heavily or not at all. Indicator lights illuminate to deliver the reading.

Those readings, while revealing, are not incredibly precise and, taken by themselves, would never be the sole basis for an arrest, King said.

However, he went on, they can be very useful as officers determine whether particular motorists should undergo more precise monitoring and observation -- such as through field sobriety or breathalyzer tests.

With help from the devices, the percentage of high-blood-alcohol-content drivers initially identified in standard DUI-checkpoint procedures climbed to 71 percent, according to one case study. Without the devices, the study showed, the typical detection rate was about 55 percent.

"We want you all to inform everybody -- as much as (you) can -- that we have these tools," King told reporters Monday. (Advertisements placed in the local media will help raise public awareness of the specialized flashlights, as well, according to official documents.)

King said the borough police department has six of the specialized flashlights on hand right now, using them in roving and fixed-location DUI patrols in the Centre Region. A driver who has been stopped generally will not be told if such a flashlight is in use, King said. He emphasized that officers have long used -- silently -- their olfactory abilities to sniff out alcohol-heavy breath.

King and Rob Turrisi, a Penn State professor involved in the research, said that the flashlights help level the law-enforcement playing field, as some officers have naturally better senses of smell than others.

Plus, Turrisi said, the flashlights make it easier for police to identify -- quickly -- those drivers whose intoxication may not otherwise be immediately apparent. Such drivers include those with high alcohol-tolerance levels, and those younger drivers -- under age 21 -- for whom the DUI threshold in Pennsylvania is a blood-alcohol-content level of 0.02. (The BAC threshold for everyone else is 0.08.)

The flashlight deployment here is coming about two years into a five-year study funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Researchers at Penn State and West Virginia University, in Morgantown, W.Va., are collaborating with the Maryland-based Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation in the effort.

It began in 2009, when researchers in State College and Morgantown started hosting voluntary checkpoints to monitor drivers' intoxication levels. (Those found to be impaired were encouraged to get off the road -- and complied, Turrisi said.)

Those checkpoints -- including about 16 in the State College area -- allowed researchers to establish baseline data. Turrisi estimated that about 20 percent to 25 percent of drivers stopped in the checkpoints had been drinking.

In the months to come, as the special flashlights' use becomes more entrenched and widely known, researchers will again gauge DUI rates here and in Morgantown, to see if they're changing, Turrisi said.

King said the police may add to the number of specialized flashlights in use here if more federal funding becomes available; he noted that no local tax dollars are going toward the effort.

He and Turrisi also said that the research-and-enforcement effort is focused in large part on underage DUI offenders, who, in college communities, account for a substantial portion of the overall DUI incidents.

"Young people are at a higher risk because they're inexperienced with driving as well as with alcohol," Turrisi said.

If the project here is deemed successful, he said, "there is a great opportunity" for renewed government funding beyond the five-year mark.

King said the flashlight devices may be used, too, to help determine if alcohol is present in open-container or medical-emergency situations locally. But he underscored that no "pedestrian checkpoints" -- or anything similar -- are in the works.

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