Authorities claim new breathalyser will win war against drunk driving

National traffic authorities are confident they can win the war against drunk driving this festive season with a German device that detects blood alcohol levels with a single breath.

The Dräger Alcotest breathalyser, which takes a reading of the amount of alcohol in a person’s blood by them breathing into the device once, has been rolled out in the Western Cape, KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

The regular breathalyser is administered to suspected drunk drivers at road blocks, and if the reading is above 0.24mg/l, drivers are taken in for further testing on the Dräger.

Authorities said the device would help secure quick convictions, “eliminate the existing messy ‘chain of evidence’ problems and is likely to drastically improve the prosecution rate for drunk driving”.

But critics are not convinced of the device’s accuracy. Forensic consultant Dr David Klatzow dismissed it as “flawed” and accused the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) of not giving proper thought to using results from the device as court evidence.

“The alcohol in your breath is not what counts; it’s alcohol in your blood which affects your driving and therefore to base a test for driving under the influence on breath alcohol is nonsensical,” he said.

Cape Town lawyer, William Booth has a pending court matter in Pietermaritzburg where he is challenging the readings.

“They prosecuted this person (on) the (amount of) alcohol in the breath. We have to challenge it in court and experts must be brought in and then the court must decide,” said Booth.

NPA spokesman Mthunzi Mhaga said: “What motivated the decision (to introduce the device) was that drunk driving would continue unabated if we were to rely on blood testing.

“To get blood testing was becoming more of a logistical nightmare because were had to rely on doctors who had more serious and urgent matters to attend to … with the Dräger system we’ve got a centralised operation room where you can take suspects to at once and it is not time consuming.”

Superintendent Wayne Minnaar, the spokesman for the Johannesburg Metro Police Department said the device was being used in central Johannesburg, Randburg and Soweto.

“The Dräger machine is technically advanced and gives a print-out which can be used as evidence in a court of law. There is a zero waiting period because the evidence is right there,” he said.

Minnaar said 571 drunk drivers had been arrested in Gauteng since the start of the festive season as a result of the machine.

“The machine is an instrument that gives a reading of what the alcohol content is and based on this evidence and the evidence presented in court by a traffic officer on how a person was when they were stopped, it’s impossible that a person cannot be found guilty,” he said.

John Schnell, the director of the Road Traffic Inspectorate at the KwaZulu-Natal Department of Transport, said the device was being used at the Alcohol Evidence Centre in Pietermaritzburg.

“The machine is highly accurate and doesn’t have any of the complications that are involved in blood samples,” he said.

“This is one of the things that we believe has significantly contributed to the increase in the number of drunken drivers detected in this province, especially here in Pietermaritzburg.”

Schnell said traffic authorities had “faith in this machine.

“We saw it used in Australia … we brought it to South Africa and ran a test case in this province … in the high court, which was successful.

“The director of Public Prosecutions has supported us in every prosecution initiated with the Dräger instrumentation.”

Schnell added that there had been several unsuccessful attempts to challenge the machine, and KwaZulu-Natal traffic authorities have arrested more than 500 drunk drivers since December 1, using the device.

The Western Cape intends to halve the number of road fatalities in the province in five years using the device.

Solly Malatsi, the spokesman for Western Cape transport and public works MEC Rob Carlisle, said the NPA in the Western Cape had “granted permission for the Cape Town Magistrate’s Court to use the Dräger breathalyser for prosecution purposes from December 17 onwards”.

The national preliminary road death figures for the festive season stands at 650. This compares to 1358 who died on South African roads last year.