From 11 p.m. to 3 a.m., Saturday, Aug. 19, 10 Loudoun County deputies tested out the newest tool in their arsenal against drunk driving, the Passive Alcohol Sensory flashlight.
Four hundred and fifty Loudoun drivers passed through the Sheriff's Office checkpoint at Church Road and Cascades Parkway Saturday night. They were the first people to experience the flashlights, which can detect alcohol fumes and indicate an approximate level of intoxication.
The flashlights were a donation from Loudoun's chapter of Mother's Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and were presented to the Sheriff's Office during a special press conference immediately prior to the checkpoint.
"We know they are a useful tool for police to use," Loudoun MADD president Susan Cleveland said. "They help them be more affective at checkpoints."
The flashlight presentation helped kick off the national Impaired Driving Crackdown, which began Aug. 18 and continues through Labor Day. The 17-day program is part of the new national campaign "Drunk Driving. Over the Limit. Under Arrest." The new campaign replaces the "You Drink, You Drive, You Lose" campaign.
THE SPECIAL FLASHLIGHTS are designed to supplement the current method of determining whether a driver has been drinking or not.
"Right now the deputy uses their own sensory skills to determine whether a person has been drinking," Sheriff's Office spokesperson Kraig Troxell said. "They look for slurred speech, the smell of alcohol or even an open container. This is just another measure they can use."
The PAS IV, which is the model that both Loudoun and Fairfax counties use, can detect alcohol from a distance of 10 inches if a person is in an open space or in any enclosed space, such as a car, Jarel Kelsey, of PAS Systems International Inc., said.
The deputy simply presses a button on the flashlight to activate the sensory device, which registers the level of alcohol detected on a person or in a car. If there is enough alcohol detected to indicate a possible blood-alcohol content of higher than .08, the legal limit, the light will turn red. A car or person where no alcohol is detected will automatically show a green light, making it easy for the deputy to make a decision about whether to administer sobriety tests, Kelsey said.
"This device is not confused by breath mints or anything else people will use to try and cover up alcohol," Kelsey said. "If an officer has a cold or allergies, it might be harder for them to tell if someone has been drinking. This only detects alcohol."
While the PAS flashlight, which lists at $614 per unit, is able to detect the alcohol in both mouthwash and some cough medicines, the sensor takes longer to note the alcohol in those items than it does drinking alcohol, Cleveland said.
"Typically the alcohol in mouthwash is undetectable after 10 to 15 minutes," Kelsey added. "So unless the person just used it, it would probably not be detected by the device."
In a car, the PAS IV takes a sample of the air in the car and cannot detect where the alcohol is coming from. Meaning that if a driver has not been drinking, but his or her passengers have been, the PAS would not be able to tell the difference. That, Kelsey said, is where the deputy comes in.
"This is meant as a supplement to the officers," he said. "They are trained how to further detect if a person has been drinking."
THE RESULTS OF the PAS flashlights are not submissable in court, Troxell said, and are not intended to replace the field sobriety tests, but the Sheriff's Office hopes using the flashlights might make deputies more efficient.
"These may speed up some of the checkpoints," he said, "and expedite drivers through the checkpoints."
The arrest of someone who has been found to be driving under the influence of alcohol would not be based solely on the passive-alcohol sensor, Troxell said, and would instead be based on the judgment of the deputy and the reading of a breathalyzer test.
For Loudoun's chapter of MADD, deterrence was the main motivation behind their donation.
The goal in the campaign is that we don't have any drunk driving fatalities in the county," Cleveland said. "We are hoping knowing [deputies] have these [flashlights] will make people think, 'I'd better have a designated driver.'"
MADD raised the money for the flashlights through their donations campaign, raising more than $7,000 and Cleveland said she hopes to raise more money for more flashlights in the future.
"Officers are 50 percent more accurate when using these as opposed to 10 percent when using just themselves," Cleveland said. "We want to show that the whole community is involved in trying to keep drunk drivers off the streets."