By Doug Ireland
---- — Longtime Atkinson police Chief Philip Consentino remembers a time when someone suspected of drunken driving was pulled over and given a simple field sobriety test.
If drivers appeared to be unsteady after getting out of their car and trying to walk, it was a closed case. They were charged with driving while intoxicated.
That was in 1968, shortly after Consentino started with the department. A lot has changed since then with the advent of breath and blood-alcohol tests.
Now, many police departments and the state police forensic laboratory rely on the pinpoint accuracy of a special machine — the Intoxilyzer 5000 EN.
There are 107 of the $6,000 Breathalyzer machines used at police stations throughout New Hampshire, according to lab director Timothy Pifer.
But Pifer said he’s seeing a 10 percent decrease in the use of breath tests each year as more police departments turn to blood tests.
Blood tests can track the use of illicit drugs, but breath tests — even the sophisticated Intoxilyzer 5000 EN — do not.
“It’s not as inclusive,” Pifer said.
Since 2009, the state lab has seen a large increase in users of pharmaceutical drugs, usually painkillers, Pifer said.
Pharmaceuticals have been the second-leading drug detected by blood tests, topped only by marijuana. Only five years ago, pharmaceuticals ranked fourth on the list after marijuana, cocaine and heroin, he said.
“We have become more of a medicated society,” Pfifer said.
The state’s new, tougher DUI law that took effect Jan. 1 specifically targets drivers under the influence of prescription and over-the-counter drugs. The previous law only punished users of alcohol and illicit drugs.
While some local police officials say their departments use breath tests because they are more convenient, others rely on blood tests taken at local hospitals. State law requires any driver involved in a serious accident with injury resulting to submit to a blood test.
The state lab handles approximately 3,600 breath samples annually, compared to roughly 2,000 blood samples, Pifer said.
New Hampshire State Police and officers in Salem, Plaistow and Atkinson mostly administer breath tests. Departments in Londonderry, Windham and Newton rely on blood tests.
“The majority of the time it is the Breathalyzer,” state police Lt. Chris Wagner said. “We use that, and almost every police department uses that.”
But most local police officials agree blood tests are the most reliable, largely because they screen for drugs as well as alcohol.
“There’s no question,” Consentino said.
But for Atkinson, it’s easier for the department to administer breath tests. They are used about 75 percent of the time, Consentino said.
Atkinson and several other police departments share the use of the Plaistow Police Department’s Intoxilyzer, according to Plaistow Deputy Chief Kathleen Jones.
Plaistow also uses breath tests in nearly three-quarters of cases, Jones said.
“I feel they are equally effective,” Jones said. “It just depends on the situation (when it’s used).”
For blood tests, the suspect must be transported by police to either Exeter Hospital or Lawrence General Hospital, she said.
“Sadly, it takes an officer out of Plaistow to do it,” she said, “but it’s part of the job.”
In Salem, Deputy police Chief Shawn Patten said his department usually administers breath tests, but turns to blood tests for more serious DWI cases.
Londonderry police Chief William Hart said his department has used blood tests for nearly 20 years because they are more reliable.
Newton also relies on blood tests, mostly because it’s more convenient and less expensive, police Chief Lawrence Streeter said.
Streeter said it’s costly for a small police department to purchase and maintain an Intoxilyzer. A police officer also needs special certification to administer the test, he said.
“It’s just as easy for us to bring them to Exeter Hospital,” he said.
Streeter said he also likes the greater reliability of blood tests.
“You get a full tox,” he said.