The Breathalyzer’s humble beginnings

When the Breathalyzer was introduced commercially in 1956 it was a mere 21 X 23 X 26 cm in size and weighed about six kilograms.  It had an on-off switch, a few gauges and a light.   There was a mouthpiece for suspected impaired drivers to blow their last breath before being charged. Despite its diminutive appearance its impact on law enforcement has been far reaching.

By the early 1960s the Breathalyzer made its way to Toronto and the city became a leader in putting the equipment to work.

“The first mass testing program in the world was commenced here in 1962 in Ontario,” explains Metro Toronto Police Breath Testing Coordinator Jeff Patrick.

The introduction of the Breathalyzer in Toronto provided officers with scientific back-up in suspected impaired driving situations.

“The impact it had on policing certainly was significant,” said Metro Toronto Police Superintendent Gary Grant who manages Traffic Services.  “Prior to the Breathalyzer if an officer suspected that a driver was impaired they would have to rely on physical evidence:  the driving of the suspect; the smell of  alcohol; flushed face; watery bloodsh eyes; slurred speech; and a series of physical tests. The Breathalyzer greatly increased the ability of  police officers to lay charges against drinking drivers…”

The power of the Breathalyzer was strengthened 30 years ago in the Criminal Code of Canada in 1969.  Amendments made a finding of 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of  blood to be over the legal limit.  Also, refusing a Breathalyzer test would be considered a criminal offence.

In the 1970s, armed with a Breathalyzer backed by tough laws, Metro police commenced aggressive road side spot checks which were later adopted by other cities.   When R.I.D.E. was first initiated, the “E” didn’t stand for “Everywhere.”  It stood for Etobicoke where the initial pilot program was run. Reduce Impaired Driving Everywhere locations sometimes had a  van with a Breathalyzer thus potentially avoiding a trip to the station.

“The R.I.D.E. spot check has become such an indelible issue in people’s minds.  I find people don’t even take a drink during the Christmas season because the Breathalyzer test is there as well,” said Superintendent Grant.

In recent years, catching the impaired has become a more efficient task.  In the early 1990s, Metro Police introduced roadside alcohol screening devices which had three grades: pass, fail or warn. A “fail” would result in facing the Breathalyzer. By 1994, after 32 years of service, Metro’s 38 Breathalyzers were replaced by 13 Intoxilyzers which cost about $12,000 each.  The Intoxilyzer is said to be more time efficient.  The team of 80 Breathalyzer technicians have been replaced by 30 Intoxilyzer technicians.

Impaired driving testing is getting quieter these days. According to Police Constable Patrick,  while in the 1970s and 1980s Metro police were conducting approximately 10-12,000 tests per year, it has now dropped to about 2-3,000 tests.  Statistics Canada reports that between 1991 and 1996 of the 25 Census Metropolitan Areas in Canada  measuring impaired driving charges per 100,000 people 16 years and older, Toronto had the lowest rate.