Friday, 26 December 2014

My new personal breathalyser

Let me say at once that I am not evangelical about drinking and driving. I certainly recognise that drinking and driving do not mix, but I don't live in a city, and for most practical purposes I must drive if I want to have a social life. So for me it's a question of how to stay within the limits of the law. And not about adopting an idealistic stance on drinking. I never nanny other people where their drinking is concerned. It's entirely up to them. I expect no nannying in return.

And I don't think I deserve nannying anyway. Consider these points.

1. Lots of people love alcohol, and eagerly go for whatever it gives them. But I've never really liked the taste of the stuff. Unless on holiday and having a meal, when I'd normally be on my own, I drink only in company. I drink only as something one does on a social occasion, and that's the context in which I've got used to how alcoholic drinks taste. It's part of the ritual of social engagement, and if I seem thumbs-up and positive about the merits of this or that wine, it's simply that if drinking is called for, one might as well take an interest in the business, and learn some discernment.

2. But alcohol is one of those things I wouldn't miss if cast ashore on the proverbial desert island. There wouldn't be any cravings, no cold turkey, because I don't drink enough to need it as part of my daily routine.

3. I've never turned to alcohol to solve my problems, or anaesthetise myself against them. For most of the week - five days out of seven - I drink nothing but tea or coffee, water or cold milk. Occasionally some elderflower cordial. When I do drink, I drink wine, sometimes gin-and-tonic. And, unless it's a very unusual occasion, that is all. No beer. No other spirits. I know there are some amazing cocktails out there, and I've tried some, but as an almost invariable rule I like to keep my libations simple and straightforward.

4. I hate feeling not in complete control. I need to be focussed all the time on what I'm doing and saying. I want my world to be sharp and distinct and keenly-felt. I don't want to feel tipsy, or talk too loosely, or spill my drink, or knock things over and generally be unsteady. That's all embarrassing and shaming, and gives people the wrong idea about me. And it's especially awful when alcohol brings on a bad headache. I haven't felt queasy or in any way ill for a very long time (only my late teens around 1970, and after-office boozing in the early 1990s, come to mind) but I haven't forgotten what it's like.

5. And I so love driving! If deprived of it, I'd miss it terribly, quite apart from the fact that my life is built around my car, and that I fear the many inconveniences of not being able to use it. Ever since my childhood, when I watched fascinated as Dad drove us about, I have been in love with driving. And now, as a woman in her sixties, I am terribly conscious of how vulnerable I might be if I had to use public transport all the time, and not my personal safety-capsule.

6. I know how cars work, and I'm savvy about signs of trouble, and get anything amiss fixed straight away. But I'm not hands-on under the bonnet, and I won't get my hands dirty. It's the on-road experience that I love. Throughout my adult life, for decades, I've loved the skill, and the thrill, and the extraordinary satisfaction of driving. Best of all in Fiona, the only car I've ever bought new, the most powerful, the most capable, the most high-tech, and (by a big margin) the best-quality and most prestigious car that I've ever owned. And by far the most expensive - the one I invested a small fortune in buying. I bought Fiona to last. I'm proud of her. I'm very, very fond of her. I would cry if she were involved in a crash. In fact I'd be distraught. I am never going to risk that happening, insofar as I can control what occurs out on the road.

7. You may recall my posts earlier this year when I inadvertently did 60mph on a clear stretch of 50mph country road in Kent, and got caught for speeding on a police camera. Instead of being fined and having penalty points on my licence, I was able to attend a Speed Awareness Course. It changed my views on speeding - permanently. I am no longer casual about going faster than the legal limit. I see exactly why I should not. I now enjoy being skilful about making good progress within the limits of the law.

I say all this to drum home various things about my attitude to alcohol, and my attitude to driving. I have in the past had a couple of drinks and still driven. And I can't always avoid doing this in the future, not where I live. But I can place more effective voluntary limits on my alcohol consumption. I respond to gadgets. The suggestion of a friend has made me purchase my own personal breathalyser.

It's an AlcoSense Elite. It cost £59.99 at Halfords. They do less expensive models, including a no-nonsense single-use kit for a fiver, but I wanted something that was very accurate and would last me a long time. Here it is in its packaging:

Opening the box reveals the device, which is the size and thickness of a mobile phone from a few years back, before there were large touchscreens, when you slid out the keyboard:

As you can see, it comes complete with batteries, plastic tubes to blow into, and an instruction booklet. It seems to contain crystals, and it has a sensor. It measures, very accurately, the alcohol content of the air from one's lungs (which is directly proportional to the alcohol in the bloodstream). The batteries are there to power the display and to heat up the sensor to its operating temperature. To use it, you slide out the bottom, and attach a tube. The sensor takes 20 seconds to heat up, and the display shows a countdown. Here the device is three seconds away from telling me to blow into the tube:

You blow with normal exhaling pressure, and the device tells you if you get this right or wrong. It then gives an immediate reading of the alcohol content of your blood at that moment. The limits in England are presently 35 microgrammes for every 100 millilitres of breath, equivalent to 80 milligrammes of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.

# If the amount is zero or (in blood terms) below 20mg/100ml, the screen is amber and the reading shows 'LO'. It's safe to drive - though with the caveat that even a trace of alcohol could lead to some impairment of driving alertness or performance. This is what you want to see in the display:

# At alcohol concentrations from 20mg/100ml to 49mg/100ml the screen is amber and you get a figure - for example '0.46', meaning 46mg/100ml. This means you are still below the legal limit, but the recommendation is that you don't drive.

# At alcohol concentrations from 50mg/100ml to 79mg/100ml the screen is flashing red and amber and you get a figure - for example '0.73', meaning 73mg/100ml. This means you are still below the legal limit, but quite close to it, borderline legal. You should not drive.

# At alcohol concentrations from 80mg/100ml to 149mg/100ml the screen is red and you get a figure - for example '1.19', meaning 119mg/100ml. This means you are over the legal limit, and must not drive.

# At alcohol concentrations upwards of 150mg/100ml the screen is red and shows 'HI', meaning that you are well over the legal limit, and must not drive.

In order to get a meaningful reading - and to avoid damaging the sensor - you have to wait 30 minutes after your last drink before testing yourself. The results are sensitive to contaminants such as mouthwash, breath spray, cough medicine and anything else that may contain alcohol.

As for interpretation, there are several things to bear in mind, but most obviously the rate at which your own liver can process the alcohol in the bloodstream. I can see that in the past I've felt perfectly OK to drive simply because the big meal I'd been eating while drinking, or soon afterwards, would have slowed down the absorption of the alcohol into my bloodstream. That didn't mean that a few hours later, and safely home, I would still be under the legal limit. The alcohol intake would have to be dealt with sooner or later; eating food only delayed its impact. No wonder I've sometimes felt fine late in the evening, but have woken with a slight headache in the morning. I should now expect to see a 'LO' (and perfectly legal) reading at going-home time, but a higher reading on a retest once back home. Putting this another way, it might not be a great idea to eat and drink far away from home, then attempt to drive back, without working out when (and how badly) the alcohol might kick in. Something to be aware of.

I am definitely going to drink less in future. It's something I can easily do, and want the health/weight benefits in any case. My new personal breathalyser will help me into a better social drinking habit. If I can, I'll avoid the whole drink-and-drive problem by using my Senior Railcard to take the train at reduced cost. 'Oh, take the train, then you can drink as much as you like!' some friends say. But, actually, only a couple of drinks are 'enjoyable' - beyond that, I'm really drinking for the sake of it, and not for pleasure. I don't want a great excuse to drink my head off. Thus it was on Christmas Eve. Even though I could have been very relaxed about it, I didn't over-imbibe. I was home by 9.00pm, and got a 'LO' before I went to bed.

Just to polish my crooked halo, I'll mention this last thing. When you first set up the AlcoSense breathalyser, you have to activate the sensor, and this requires letting it 'sniff' a white-wine-and-water mixture. Fortunately I had a bottle of white wine on hand (for taking to a future meal at somebody's house). It was decent stuff, costing me £8 at Waitrose. Unfortunately it wasn't open. But it had to be opened, in order to provide a little fluid for the activation process. Did I drink the remaining wine up? No. I told you: I never drink alone at home. I poured it away down the sink. Then rinsed the bottle, and dropped it into my recycling bin.

Are you shocked at this 'waste'? I thought I did the best thing, pouring it away, and this was certainly the thing I was most inclined to do. What would you have done?


  1. Put a rubber O ring sealed stopper in it and popped it in the fridge for a mother day to drink with fish or add to a risotto. Alternatively it could have been frozen in suitable portions for cooking later! Lucy, I shall not be able to sleep for days remembering this act of sacrilege...

    Up north our glorious parliament of sanctimonious kill joys has reduced the limit from 80 to 50 and struck fear into the hearts of all drivers! Soon you shall not be allowed to drive if you have kissed someone who has drunk a bottle of wine within the previous 24 hours!

    I think that you should open a spread sheet and fill it with timed readings following various combinations of for and drink. Nobody has ever posted anything like that and we are all in the dark as to how blood / alcohol levels change with time, many have heard that a small drink can put a woman up to the limit so now refuse to let anything touch their lips even if they are not driving during the next four or five hours...

    Several years ago Halfords started selling the kits because the French Government lower their limit to 50 and made it illegal to drive at anytime without "A" measuring device in the car even if you were a lifetime teetotaller.Of course if they insisted that you use your kit you co no longer drive the car anyway because you no longer had a kit! Millions of them were sold costing probably a couple of hundred million euros then the law was withdrawn. Humans and their sense of humour.

  2. That spreadsheet...don't tempt me!



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