The first Breathalyzer

John Weeks

  Before the introduction of the breathalyzer in 1967 every Friday and Saturday night was busy with accident calls coming in all over Hertfordshire.  All this was about to change with the introduction of the Road Traffic Act 1967 which meant that instead of relying on a doctor's opinion as to the state of a driver, there would now be a definitive test as to whether a person was fit to drive or not.  Once the Act came into force calls about accidents could sometimes be zero.

    Prior to the Act coming into force in early October, all officers had to attend a short instruction session as to the use of the equipment.  Everything was contained in a green plastic box: a one litre plastic bag, ten sealed glass tubes of yellow crystals and ten mouthpieces.  In use the sealed ends of a glass tube would be broken off, making use of a small saw built into the side of the box, and everything would then be assembled.  A suspect blew enough breath to fill the bag and then it was a case of looking at the crystals and if they had turned green beyond a line marked on the tube then that was a "Fail" and the person would be arrested.  A similar test was carried out at the police station and, assuming it was another Fail the police surgeon would be called to take a sample of blood or, if this was declined, a sample of urine.  Failure to provide one or the other was an offence in itself which resulted in a twelve month period of disqualification.  Initially, in Hertfordshire, breath test kits were only issued to cars, not motorcycles.

    On Tuesday, 26th October I was working "half nights" (6.00 p.m. - 2.00 a.m.) and in the late evening was called in to Ware Police Station so that, with P.c. John Smith, I could escort a prisoner to Hertford so he could be lodged in the cells overnight.  We had just left Hertford shortly before 10.00 p.m. when we received a call to assist P.c. Tony Elam (R.I.P.) who was riding his noddy home to Hunsdon to finish work for the day.  Near Home Farm on Hunsdon Road, Stanstead Abbotts he came across a Jaguar car in the ditch on the offside of the road with its headlights on.  The driver was sitting at the wheel revving the engine furiously.  He smelt strongly of alcohol so Tony removed the ignition key and went to his noddy to radio for assistance.  Whilst he was doing this the driver, a 63 year old man, let's just call him Mr. H., although he must have long since passed, produced a bunch of keys from his pocket and restarted the engine to try and drive away.  By the time John and I arrived on the scene, Tony had removed this second ignition key.

    I must confess that the driver looked rather ridiculous.  Apparently he was a company director in the city and was in the habit of leaving his car at St. Margarets Railway Station to travel into London by train and on his return would drive home to Much Hadham.  When we saw him he was wearing a city gent's suit and a bowler hat.  The only door of the car which could be opened was the rear offside passenger door, the other three being jammed against the sides of the ditch.  We told Mr. H. to get into the back seat and he replied, "I'm not getting over there, open this door!"  We were in no mood to mess about with a drunken driver so we hauled him into the back seat and then out into the road.  It was then time to give him a breath test, but none of us had carried out one before.  However, we assembled the equipment and gave it to Mr. H. to inflate whilst we had to support him to stop him falling over.  Our comment was, "If this thing doesn't turn green now, it never will."  However, it did turn green as did a second test at Hertford Police Station and the blood test eventually came back at 233 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood, well over the 80 limit, so we needn't have worried.

    Mr. H. appeared before Ware Magistrates' Court the following December where he pleaded guilty to to driving with excess alcohol in his blood and was fined £30 (not an inconsiderable sum in 1967) and disqualified from driving for twelve months. 

    The only other excess alcohol case I had during my time at Stanstead Abbotts was late one night when I found a car driving around a field on Roydon Road, having crashed through a hedge, although the driver insisted he had got there by using the gate!   During the rest of my service in Hertfordshire I only had one case where the excess alcohol was higher than Mr. H. (253), but that was on the A10 at Hoddesdon.


A breathalyzer kit