Review: The BacTrack Mobile Smartphone Breathalyzer

Hey everyone. Just wanted to check in.

Like I said before… Life moves on. These days I don’t really think about my DUI that much. Life is somewhat back to normal. I just paid my second-to-last
insurance payment with an SR-22 and… ouch… but other than that, reading the emails that you guys send me… It’s pretty much like life was before I got my DUI.

But not quite.

The DUI process is rough, much harsher than it needs to be, and just plain exhausting.

I don’t want to go through it again. Ever.

While I have certainly cut back on my drinking, I didn’t quit. It’s a personal decision, some may need to, some don’t, I believe I’m in the latter half.

But it doesn’t mean that I don’t worry about it.

If I go out to get drunk, have a night out, I take a l
yft or uber, but what about when you’re out with a friend who wants to get a beer and a burger, and that beer turns into two, or three over catching up and talking about old times.

How do you know when you’re ok to drive?

I spoke earlier about owning a breathalyzer, but I’ve gotten a number of messages asking me more about the specifics, so I thought I’d get into it a little bit more.

Deciding which Breathalyzer to get

After getting a DUI the last thing I wanted to do was spend more money. But I knew that if I was going to continue drinking at all… that I needed to have more information. It’s easy to think that you’re fine after a few drinks,
but study after study shows that intoxicated people have no idea how intoxicated they are. I needed to know.

The #1 thing I was looking for in a breathalyzer was accuracy - being off by one or two points can make a big difference, I had to know precisely how drunk I was. Second, I was looking for something discreet - I didn’t want to have to carry some big bulky thing around with me.

What helped inform my decision
was this review - where many breathalyzers were compared to police equipment - the ultimate test you’ll have to face. The main takeaways were that the cheaper, oxide sensors were not worth it because the results were generally all over the map. No thanks. They recommended a BacTrack breathalyzer that was professional, accurate and straightforward.

That wasn’t the one I went for.

When discussing the other ones, they mentioned how the
BacTrack Mobile version was almost just as accurate, but smaller. They frowned on it pairing to a smartphone, and the “gamification” of drinking - but I took a different approach to it.

Information, not games

Yes, the
BacTrack mobile does have options to connect to social media - but I haven’t, and will never, connect them - not even to the @surviveadui twitter. There’s no need for that, and it’s not something I want to encourage. However, it does keep a running log of your readings, with timestamps, so that you can track how your body processes alcohol and get an idea of how many drinks does it get to make you legally drunk, not just feeling drunk.

bactrack

With this information, you can start to truly understand how much you can drink, and how quickly you can get sober.
This is information that you have needed since you first started drinking. Any child I have is going to get a breathalyzer for their 21st birthday so they can start understanding how alcohol affects them, and how to drink responsibly. It’s utterly ridiculous that we put such weight and shame on people for violating this sort of thing, when almost nobody has this sort of information. The person who has made you feel bad about your DUI has almost certainly driven over the limit and not even known it. Most people who are driving at .09 and .10 have no clue they’re over the limit. Before I started using the BacTrack, I thought I was fine when I wasn’t, and I had no idea how long it could take to sober up from a few drinks, or that sometimes I was waking up and starting the next day still drunk.

Without the information, you’re just guessing, and guessing doesn’t work.

Operations

The BacTrack mobile smartphone breathalyzer is easy to work, easy to carry, and easy to hide. It does have a bright blue LED, but that’s easily covered with your fingers. I found myself easily using it while in a bathroom, walking down the street, or elsewhere. Nobody picked up on it.

To use you simply turn it on, pair it with your phone over bluetooth, and launch the app. The app requires you to guess your BAC, which many have dismissed as making it like a game, but again, I see that as an important part - you need to see how accurate you are as to how you feel to start getting a base. You’ll find that you’re often not fine when you believe you are, which is one of the best things that you can learn from a breathalyzer.

There’s the option for to use a detachable, washable mouthpiece with the unit. I opted not to, I blew directly into the machine. I don’t really plan on sharing it, and I don’t need to put anything in my mouth to blow.

The most difficult part about using the breathalyzer is getting used to the routine. You can’t just suck down a whiskey sour and then blow on it expecting instant results. You have to wait 15 - 20 minutes after your last drink, wash your mouth out with water, and not burp, hiccup, or vomit during this time. Residual alcohol in your mouth will give you a higher rating (better higher than lower). You have to also understand that all the alcohol has not been absorbed into your system after that 15 - 20 minutes. The boilermaker in your stomach is still creeping into your bloodstream for a good hour to hour-and-a-half after you drink it. Important to remember that so that you don’t take off too quickly after a drink, and good to know so that you can monitor how quickly the alcohol gets into your system.

Upkeep

The BacTrack comes with a carrying pouch, but I never used it. I just kept it in my jacket or glovebox and never had any sort of problem with it. Nothing got into it, or set it off weird. The charges last a good time, and charge via USB, so you can charge it in your car if you really need to.

The only thing that’s difficult is eventually the fuel cell needs to be recalibrated and sadly that’s not something you can do yourself. You have to send it back to the company and give them $25. You’re supposed to do this annually, but you can push it a little bit I found. However, it’s not a bad idea to line up recalibration with your #SoberSeptember.

Overall

Given the price, size, and accuracy, I have found the
BacTrack mobile smartphone breathalyzer to be an incredibly useful device. It’s armed me with the knowledge I need to understand how alcohol affects me, and when I am or am not ok to operate a vehicle. Had I gotten this years before maybe I would not be in the situation that I am right now. That said, I’m hoping that it will help me not be in this sort of situation in the future. It’s easy to take with me, it’s easy to use. There’s no excuse not to be informed anymore.




Review: The Smart Start SSI-20/30 IID

There’s nothing fun about the Ignition Interlock Device experience. The shopping for it is incredibly difficult, and a sheer hassle. Once you figure out which one you “want”, you still have to deal with the hassle of it all - making sure that your regular appointments work with your schedule, avoiding all the nickel-and-dime charges they throw at you for a wide variety of things.

It’s a process that leaves you exhausted and drained of money. That’s what they want. They want you to want to avoid getting another DUI at all costs. I feel they go much too far, and that the lesson has been learned much before you’re dealing with these companies.

They work mostly in secret, no totals given, hidden fees, it’s an ordeal.

Once I talked to a handful of companies over the phone, I did the math the best I could with all the information they were willing to give me and settled on one that seemed to be the cheapest and had an installer near my house.

The feeling of going in to get the thing installed is awful. A deep pit in your stomach, you feel the punishment. It’s not as bad as it could be, the installers do this all the time. You’re just another customer to them. Heck, they’re happy that you did this.

The installer I went to was inside a car accessories store that mostly sold alarms, aftermarket stereos, and car modifications. I had always wondered how these places stayed in business. This is how.

The Smart Start SSI-20/30
SSI_2030_Interlock_device-1
I could have paid more for a rental of another, more advanced unit, but I felt sucked dry enough already by the process that I went for this one. It’s a very basic unit, and I just wanted to comply with the law. I didn’t need features.

The SSI-20/30 takes about an hour to install in your car. They disassemble part of your dashboard below your steering wheel to install a hidden computer unit inside of your vehicle (don’t worry, modern cars are made to be taken apart like this, installation does no damage). Then from there a large, heavy, coiled cable comes out and attaches to the head unit. I found the cable to be the pretty annoying, it would have to be draped over my leg (I kept my unit in the center cup holder) the whole thing. It never got in the way of driving, but, I could always feel it there.

When you turn on your car you turn your key and… nothing happens. The electrical systems turn on, but you car doesn’t turn over, no matter how much you turn the key. Instead you have to wait 30-40 seconds for the Smart Start to initialize, and become ready to test your breath. It’s annoying and you find yourself trying to minimize stops that you have to make because it’s frustrating to sit there and wait for it. If you get back to your car within 15 minutes, give or take, the unit stays on, so it’s just blow-and-go. Otherwise it shuts off and you have to wait every time.

Blowing into the unit takes some practice. It takes a
large volume of air to get going. Eventually I found that I could blow a more focused breath of air and not have to breath so much, but it took some getting used to. You breathe a big breath for 3 seconds, then start humming additionally for another 5 seconds while still blowing to get a clean reading. It’s a balancing act, for sure, but eventually you get used to it. Some other company’s units just take a 3 second breath, which in retrospect, might have been worth it, depending on how much it was. Early mornings, times when I was tired, or in a hurry often lead to botched tests. You don’t get any points against you for a breathing error, as long as you complete the test within the 5 minutes allotted for a rolling retest. If you have a breathing error and end up turning off the car in frustration, you don’t get a point for that, either.

Rolling retests come at 5 minutes into your trip, and then randomly within 20 minute intervals afterwards. You could have to blow to start, then at 5 minutes, and then 10 minutes later or 20 minutes later. You never know. I understand the reasoning for this, but it would’ve been nice and allowed me to plan some of my trips better. A couple of times it took longer than 20 minutes for a retest, which was kind of nice, but made me worry that something was wrong. You kind of can’t win.

Once you have the breathing pattern down, you can take a rolling retest while driving. You’re given five minutes to retest and the screen counts down the time. You’re supposed to have enough time to pull over and retest, but I never did. I doubt many people ever have. Such a hassle. The beep that comes from the unit is
loud. I never had a problem hearing it over my music or anything.

One of the biggest questions asked about the IID is whether passengers in your car will notice that you have it. They
absolutely will. There’s no hiding it. It’s a large clunky unit that doesn’t fit many places in the car (It would fit into a place for my phones without the mouthpiece, but putting the mouthpiece on while driving would’ve been too difficult. I would keep it there, out of sight when the car was stopped and assemble it back together while waiting for it to start back up. I always beat it.) The beeps are loud, and the breathing process is involved, and frequent. Any person in your car will be very aware of it. So, you either need to have understanding passengers or a good list of excuses as to why you can’t give somebody a ride. Those who knew what I was going through did find the unit amusing.

Some places will rent you a cover for the interlock, disguising it as a soda can or other drink to spare you the embarrassment of other drivers seeing you. This usually comes with an an additional warranty or some other weird way of charging you a good amount of money. You can’t buy them and they don’t tell you how much it would cost. I found that I didn’t need one. The breathing process is 8 seconds, and to my knowledge, I never got “caught in the act”. If I did, it’s by somebody who’s probably long forgotten it. Speeding up or slowing down, getting next to a car bigger or smaller than yours is an effective way to keep it hidden from your fellow drivers. I never felt that I needed a cover.

The interface of the 20/30 leaves a lot to be desired. A simple menu button allowing you to go through the information you need (remaining points, appointment date) is done through using codes that don’t always work. It was a source of frustration in the unit that the information was sometimes inaccessible. There’s no reason it needs to be that hard to access. There’s no settings to change on the unit (maybe for the installer, not for clients) so the unit could easily be simpler.

Another drawback is that when you successfully blow, you’re never given your BAC reading. This, to me, is a major failing of the unit. Most people will not purchase additional breathalyzers (although, they should) so they will not know what their alcohol rating is - just pass, warn, or fail. How close were they on a warn? People should know, so they can learn. That said, I found the unit to be accurate in it’s readings (One time I waited for my BAC to come down enough to start the unit, and it gave me a rolling retest every 5 minutes trying to catch me and give me a violation. Fortunately my BAC was falling and I had my breathalyzer so I knew I would be ok.)

Getting the unit calibrated is easy, takes about 10 minutes. They try to make you come in every month for whatever reason, but you’re allowed to be calibrated for every two months. I went that option because, why not? It’s the most they can legally give you. They’ll try to get you for a late fee if you’re late to your appointment, so be sure to be on time, and don’t miss it, things get hairy from there (I never did).

Some people complain about the drain on their battery from the unit. I didn’t find any significant draw, even when leaving my car for two weeks for a trip. The computer unit hidden away is always “on”, so it’s drawing power to keep all the records of your readings and attempts active. There is probably a better way to do this, but I’m not a computer engineer. Some people have had their batteries die from this, I personally didn’t.

Removing the unit takes about fifteen minutes. I couldn’t believe how quickly I was out of there. It was quite a relief.

Overall

Overall the unit gets the job done. It’s never pleasant, it’s never particularly easy, but it satisfies the requirements before you. I wish it gave BAC readings, as keeping you in the dark is senseless regarding your alcohol education (although, that may be what they want). Looking around online I’ve seen all sorts of horror stories about malfunctioning units, mine worked fine. Maybe I was lucky.

This unit, with service cost less than other ones I was quoted. Despite my asking questions there still was an additional fee that I wasn’t aware of until it was time to pay ($7/mo warranty, so it wasn’t terrible, but still). They tried to hide the removal fee from me, but once I knew to ask about it, I was told. I never had to deal with a lockout, and found the unit was fair.

Rating: It’s fine. It gets the job done, and that's about it.

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