N.M. county may be first to test-drive new DWI-fighting technology

By Dan Mckay
Albuquerque Journal

For decades, the Breathalyzer has been the standard for detecting alcohol in drunken drivers.

But new technology developed in Albuquerque could change that, with help from Bernalillo County sheriff's deputies.

County commissioners will today consider a $494,000 proposal to work with TruTouch Technologies Inc., an Albuquerque company working on a device that detects alcohol levels by shining light into skin and measuring what bounces back.

"This is the future of DWI investigations," Sheriff Darren White said Monday in an interview.

The agreement before commissioners today would authorize the county to work with TruTouch to help test the new technology. A federal Justice Department grant would pay for the work.

The agreement is a "sole source procurement" — meaning competitive bids weren't sought — because TruTouch holds patents on the technology.

Proponents say the company's device is better than current equipment because it is less invasive than asking suspects to breathe into a tube or allow their blood to be drawn.

Instead, the subjects can place an arm on a machine. An optical sensor bounces through the skin and measures what is reflected back to determine how much alcohol the person has had.

TruTouch has developed prototypes and is testing small, portable versions of the device. It wants to work with sheriff's deputies to fine-tune how the technology will work in the real world.

Jim McNally, chief executive officer and board chairman of TruTouch, said the deputies can offer advice, point out any problems and help shape what features should be included in the device.

"We're excited to be working with the sheriff," McNally said.

Drunks don't have to worry about the device just yet. The technology will have to undergo thorough testing and certification from the state and federal governments before it can be used in court.

"There's a lot of work to be done along the way," McNally said. "This is a small step."

White said he hopes to have volunteers try out the machines.

The device is intended to be easy to use, and it may be quicker, too.

Right now, White said, authorities must wait 20 minutes before administering a breath test to ensure the suspect hasn't taken a recent sip of alcohol. That's because alcohol residue in the mouth throws off the test.

"I was a DWI officer almost 20 years ago, and the machine that we use to do the breath test is pretty much the same, with just a few minor changes," White said. "I think this is going to revolutionize the way law enforcement does DWI investigations."

The breath machines in use today are bulky, White said. The new device has the potential to be much smaller, perhaps even portable enough for deputies to keep one in their cars.

Under the grant, the Sheriff's Department is expected to be the first agency to field test the equipment.

Copyright 2007 Albuqerque Journal

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