Breath Tests Aim to Stop Drunk Driving. Can We Trust the Results?

Producer/Director: Singeli Agnew

More than 1 million people a year are arrested for drunk driving and most are asked to blow into a breath test machine to see how impaired they might be. The devices, among the most widely used forensic tools in law enforcement, generate numbers that can all but guarantee a driver’s conviction and punishment. In most states, if you refuse the test, you lose your license.

For months, The New York Times has been investigating problems with the technology used to make these cases. Our reporters found that tens of thousands of breath tests in more than a dozen states have been thrown out by judges. What does it mean if we can’t trust a tool hailed as accurate to the third decimal point?

“The Weekly” talks to drivers facing punishment for a crime they may not have committed, some officials worried guilty drivers could be let off, and some of the people who make the machines that determine who’s drunk and who’s not.

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Stacy Cowley is a finance reporter with a focus on consumer issues and data security. She was a 2018 finalist for the Gerald Loeb Award for her collaboration with Natalie Kitroeff and Jessica Silver-Greenberg about student debt. Before joining The Times, Stacy reported on technology and economics at CNN Money and Fortune Small Business. Follow Stacy on Twitter at @StacyCowley.

Jessica Silver-Greenberg is a business reporter covering finance and its impact on consumers, businesses and the legal system. Before she joined The Times, she was a reporter at The Wall Street Journal, where she wrote about debt. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting and for National Reporting. Follow Jessica on Twitter at @jbsgreenberg.

Natalie Kitroeff is a business reporter covering the economy. Before she joined The Times, Natalie covered the California economy for The Los Angeles Times and reported on student debt for Bloomberg. Natalie and Jessica are finalists for the 2019 Gerald Loeb Awards for their series, “Working While Pregnant, and Paying the Price.” Follow Natalie on Twitter at @Nataliekitro.

Show Notes

Behind-the-scenes commentary about “The Weekly”

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  • Credit…Singeli Agnew for The New York Times

    On our ride-along with the state troopers, we responded to a bad crash. The driver was rushed to the hospital with internal bleeding and broken bones. The troopers said they believed the driver was intoxicated, but blood test results — more accurate than breath tests — can take months to process. 

    Credit…Singeli Agnew for The New York Times

Senior Story Editors Dan Barry, Liz O. Baylen, and Liz Day
Director of Photography Vanessa Carr
Video Editor Geoff O’Brien
Associate Producer Abdulai Bai

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