ISU junior looks to bring more breathalyzers to Iowa City bars


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There are currently 10 breath-test machines in bars and liquor stores in the Iowa City area, and officials say alcohol consumers may not be using the recently installed machines for their intended purpose.

However, one Iowa State University junior says he hopes to increase the number of such machines in bars in Iowa City in the near future.

T.J. Elbert has placed five breath-test machines in bars in Ames and Des Moines, and he hopes to expand to Iowa City in a few months.

“My dream would be to have them in every state,” he said. “The whole point of why I started this is just to save lives.”

Elbert’s business is not the first of its kind. Be SAFE [Supporting Alcohol-Friendly Establishments] Iowa began putting machines in bars in Iowa City area in May 2012. Be SAFE Iowa currently has 10 machines placed in bars and liquor stores throughout Iowa City, Coralville, North Liberty, Cedar Rapids, and Tiffin.

“The more machines we can have, I think it’s better for everybody,” said Bill Schmooke, a cofounder of Be SAFE Iowa. “If it’s coming from my company or if it’s coming from [Elbert’s] company, it really doesn’t matter. The more the merrier.”

Elbert said he is not bothered to learn another group is already doing the same thing as him in Iowa City.

“I would love to get in contact with them to see if we could work something out to see if together, we could work to get machines into bars,” he said. “I honestly don’t care about competition. I’m just glad there are other people out there.”

Elbert’s breath-test machines work much like vending machines. Consumers pay a dollar to use the machine, blow through a straw, and get a reading of their blood-alcohol content. Elbert said the hope is that people will use the readings from the machines to make informed decisions about whether to drive after drinking.

He buys his breath machines from Alco-Buddy, a New York company that manufactures the machines, while he waits for his patent application to be approved, which could take up to a year.

Elbert’s business is called Safe Living. The major differences between his machine and the Alco-Buddy machine will be a dispenser for the straws, a screen for advertisements, and a printer for the results.

Kelly Bender, the community harm-reduction-initiatives coordinator for Partnership for Alcohol Safety, said the partnership has not been actively promoting these machines. The concern is some people may turn the machines into a drinking game to see who can blow the highest blood alcohol content level.

“… I believe the intentions of these businesses are good,” she wrote in an email. “We just need to be aware that this kind of strategy may not have the kind of protective effect that one might intuitively think it would.”

Elbert said he is aware that some people will abuse the machines but that the benefits outweigh the concerns.

“What I always say to that, is on the bottom of alcohol it says ‘Please drink responsibly,’ and you’re always going to have someone who abuses that [too],” he said.

Gabe Lynott, the general manager of the Airliner, 22 S. Clinton St., which has a breath machine, said he notices that older adults tend to take the machines more seriously than students.

“Would the machine steer you clear from driving?” he said. “I’m sure it could if you take what the read out says seriously. [But] will these machines prevent [drunk driving]? No, because they can’t take your keys and tell you to take a cab.”

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