The University of Iowa’s Partnership for Alcohol Safety welcomed two new members on Wednesday evening who hope to make Iowa City’s downtown more safe by installing breathalyzers in establishments that sell alcohol.
The group, BE SAFE Iowa, was launched last May by Iowa City native Becky Russo and Bill Schmooke with the intention of incentivizing bars to install breathalyzers in order to educate people on how they feel at different levels of intoxication and prevent drunk driving. The machines are typically installed on a wall in the establishment, and cost $1 for patrons to use. There is no cost to bars who agree to have them installed.
Since May, Russo said BE SAFE Iowa has managed to install 10 units in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids area, including Iowa City’s Airliner, Deadwood, Liquor Downtown and Wildwood.
“If you use it accurately, as you should, it will give you a very accurate reading of what your BAC is,” Russo said. “It’s an educational tool, we are not putting this up here telling people, well, if you blow into this and it tells you this and you get pulled over this is more accurate – that is not our mission. It’s to give people an idea of, OK, this is what I feel like at this amount.”
Though many welcomed the idea of installing breathalyzers to prevent drunk driving and over-intoxication, several on the partnership expressed concern that the breathalyzers might be used as a drinking game, rather than an over-consumption deterrent.
“I do a lot with alcohol intervention, and I will tell you that every well-intentioned thing I’ve ever done can sometimes have unintended negative effects,” said Shelly Campo, an associate professor of community and behavioral health at the UI who serves on the partnership. “So it’s great if people are blowing into this thing and then making decisions not to drive home. On the other hand, at least at another institution that I used to be at, I would say that the students would have been likely to turn that into a drinking game — so, how high can I blow, how fast can I get to .08, those kinds of things.”
Though Russo said she hadn’t yet had complaints about patrons using the breathalyzers as a game, she said she was aware that the machines could be used in that way, adding the price to use the machine could be raised from $1 to $5 in order to stop the problem.
Jim Bell, owner of Deadwood Tavern, 6 S. Dubuque St., in Iowa City, said he chose to bring the breathalyzer into his bar in hopes that it would help to both increase safety for his patrons, and continue cooperation with the Iowa City police department in cracking down on unsafe drinking.
Though he said the breathalyzer has likely been used as a game at least once since its installation, he said those using it have primarily used it for safety reasons.
“You know, I’m not going to say it’s never happened, I’ve heard of it being abused one time, but I’m sure many more times it’s used correctly. Two steps forward, one step back,” Bell said. “I have heard of that, but on the whole, it’s certainly a positive. If it was a big negative I’d take it out.”
Others on the partnership expressed concern that people might trust the machine to tell them whether it’s safe for them to drive, adding many people are unfit to drive at blood alcohol content levels below .08 percent. In response, Russo said that the machines are intended solely to educate people on how they feel at different levels of alcohol consumption, and they are not intended to be used to tell people when the can and can not drive home.
She also said BE SAFE Iowa has a breathalyzer they can rent out to parties, weddings, and even high school prom and homecoming events to deter drinking.
Though it was unclear whether the Partnership for Alcohol Safety fully endorsed BE SAFE Iowa’s breathalyzer program Wednesday evening, Kelly Bender, the UI’s campus-community harm reduction initiatives coordinator, said the groups have a similar mission.