D.C. rolls out new machines to test suspected drunken drivers

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Photo - WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 14:  Washington Metropolitan Police conduct a sobriety check point associated with a news conference on drunk driving, on August 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held a news conference to discuss the national anti-drunk driving campaign and law enforcement crackdown.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 14: Washington Metropolitan Police conduct a sobriety check point associated with a news conference on drunk driving, on August 14, 2012 in Washington, DC. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) held a news conference to discuss the national anti-drunk driving campaign and law enforcement crackdown. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Local,DC,Crime,Eric P. Newcomer

District leaders showed off new breath-testing technology and new anti-drunken driving legislation on Wednesday in an effort to finally move past the embarrassing revelation in 2010 that hundreds of its alcohol-breath tests might have yielded inaccurate results.

The revelation left the Attorney General's Office scrambling to fend off legal challenges and meant that D.C. police officers had to forego administering breath tests on suspected drunken drivers.

During a news conference Wednesday, Mayor Vincent Gray signed two bills into law, and government employees demonstrated a new high-tech breath-test machine called the Intoximeter ECIR 2.

The machine, one of three purchased by the city, not only tests the subject's breath to determine blood-alcohol content at least twice, but it samples the surrounding air to ensure that it is not biasing the results. Each machine costs about $7,000 and features a digital readout, ID scanner, keyboard and has a printer linked to it.

Because the machines are too big to carry around easily in a squad car, they are kept at station houses. Officers bring drunken-driving suspects in and use the machines to analyze their blood-alcohol content.

The breath-test program was thrown into disarray in 2010, after D.C.'s medical examiner's office discovered that test results had not been properly certified, barring them as evidence in many DUI cases.

One bill that Gray signed Wednesday updates the city's procedure for administering the tests, requiring more frequent quality-control checks and that only specially certified individuals administer them.

"I think this is a major step forward," said Frank Harris, a representative for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. "It's one less loophole that a defense attorney can throw out there, one less roadblock that a defense attorney can throw out."

Kurt Erickson, president of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program, was less enthusiastic about the bill.

"It's restoring a program that should have been in place in the first part," Erickson said.

Gray also signed a bill that expands a program that allows drivers whose licenses have been revoked because of a DUI to drive with an ignition interlock system, which regularly checks the driver's blood-alcohol content.

Currently, of the 80 people eligible for the interlock program, only one participates.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, the District had seven alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in 2010 and eight in 2011.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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