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The Unreliable Fuel Cell

Ignition Interlock Devices

The Ignition Interlock Devices used in Massachusetts are not “breathalyzers.” Instead, they are lockout devices. This means that they have not been tested and certified as scientific test instruments. They have only been tested and certified to lockout a motor vehicle’s ignition when a breath sample registers at or above a pre-determined setpoint.

Under the Registry’s Ignition Interlock Device Regulations, when IID breath readings register breath test failures and there are two failures during a single service period, a lockout will be triggered and that must be cleared by the IID service provider. When the service provider notifies the RMV, the Registry will schedule an Interlock Violation Hearing. If the customer is found to be responsible, he or she will receive a ten-year license revocation for a first offense. If the customer is found responsible on a second occasion, his or her driver’s license will be revoked for life.

Ignition Interlock Devices use electrochemical fuel cell sampling to analyze alcohol content in a breath sample. The fuel cell is an electrochemical device which is used to measure alcohol content. The fuel cell oxidizes ethyl alcohol and this oxidization process generates a small amount of electrical current, which is measured and translated into a BAC reading.

These fuel cell devices lack specificity. The devices will detect and indiscriminately “mistake” a large number of chemicals as ethanol. Fuel cells are also susceptible to false readings due to “mouth alcohol,” which his alcohol or a similar chemical trapped in the test subject’s mouth and blown directly into the Ignition Interlock Device. I have personally seen very high false readings due to mouth alcohol. Fuel cell based devices such as the IIDs used in Massachusetts are also subject to a buildup of oxide film on the electrode, which has caused false positive alcohol readings. Also, Ignition Interlock Devices can be susceptible to temperature extremes.

Due to these well-known limitations, G.L. c. 90 § 24K prohibits the introduction breathalyzer results obtained solely from fuel cell devices. To be admissible in criminal DUI trials in Massachusetts, the blood alcohol content results must come from a breath testing device that uses infrared spectroscopy and not solely a fuel cell.

If you are facing a 10 year or lifetime license revocation due to an Ignition Interlock Violation, please contact me for a consultation and review of your case.

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