The trauma induced by a police officer shining a flashlight directly into a motorist’s eyes during a traffic stop may be one of the most indelible memories of an encounter with the police.
However, while the flashlight-in-the-eyes gambit can burn the retinas, it rarely helps police detect whether a driver has committed a crime.
A new toy for public safety officers, though, could help law enforcement officials use flashlights to detect whether someone is driving under the influence of alcohol.
And this new device isn’t a product of science fiction. It’s being deployed in cities near you.
According to StateCollege.com, police in State College, Pennsylvania, recently received a fresh shipment of the flashlights that can apparently detect whether someone has been driving drunk.
The spaced-aged flashlights, which cost around $700 apiece, were given to the State College police department as part of long-term, federally funded research project aimed at studying the effectiveness of DUI-fighting tools.
The flashlights, which are called “passive alcohol sensors,” look to be normal illuminating devices, but when they are placed within a foot of a driver’s nose, they can detect whether the driver has been drinking lightly, moderately, heavily, or not at all.
Lights on the end of the devise indicate whether the motorist should be given further tests to determine his or her level of inebriation.
Since the flashlights are less than precise, they cannot be used as the sole basis for an arrest. However, they can help police officers determine whether further testing is needed to gauge a person’s blood alcohol content.
According to one study, the percentage of drunk drivers detected at a traffic stop using the sci-fi flashlights was 71 percent, which represented a large increase over the 55 percent of drunk drivers detected using more traditional methods.
While the flashlights may seem invasive, the police do not intend to use them secretly. State College police plan to use an advertising campaign to alert drivers to the presence of the new machines.
Of course, in an interview, one officer remarked that most drivers would not be told the flashlight was used during a traffic stop until after an arrest.
Some critics are concerned that the devises could be used outside of traffic stops. Police, however, promise that they do not intend to use the flashlights for, say, pedestrian checkpoints.
Nevertheless, State College police claim that they may also use the flashlights in the event of an open container violation, or a medical emergency.
In defense of the new technology, law enforcement officials say that the device traditionally used as an initial DUI detector—the human nose—is far less reliable.
By introducing a more objective initial test to determine the presence of alcohol, police say the new flashlights may ultimately prove more trustworthy than an individual officer’s arbitrary sense of smell.