Public health workers partner with law enforcement to combat drunk and drugged driving.

By Rose Hoban

For someone who’s had a few drinks, the sight of blue flashing lights in the rearview mirror, or the lights of a police roadblock ahead, are only the beginning of a long, and expensive, road.

In the 12-month period ending last June, law enforcement officials charged more than 50,000 people in North Carolina with drunk or impaired driving. And on any given weekend, public health employees are working with police and sheriff’s departments to process those people.

They do it in the BAT Mobile (units). The “BAT” stands for “Breath Alcohol Testing.”

The state Division of Public Health maintains a fleet of eight specially equipped buses that are a mobile lab and magistrate’s courtroom wrapped into one package.

“From a public health perspective, accidental injuries in this state are still a problem. And when you combine that with alcohol and substances, it becomes a much bigger problem,” said Danny Staley, head of the division.

The mobile units have been in use since 1996, and members of the Forensic Tests for Alcohol Branch of the Division of Public Health now have the routine down pat.

The BAT Mobile on display at the state health directors’ annual conference in Raleigh in late January. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

The buses are equipped with multiple stations for blood-alcohol breathalyzer devices so that when law enforcement officials set up “Driving While Impaired Checkpoints” around the state they can process more than one person at a time.

“And it’s not just the big cities; we’re all over the state,” Staley said. “We even have some specially designed for mountain roads.”

The bus set up for the health directors’ meeting last month in Raleigh had six stations, each with a breathalyzer and materials to maintain the “chain of custody.”

“We don’t want drugged or impaired drivers to get off on a technicality, so we have to make sure everything we do is …  certified in every possible way,” Staley said.

George Francis (l) from the Forensic Tests for Alcohol Branch, and Danny Staley (r), head of the Division of Public Health, demonstrate a breathalyzer machine. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Each defendant gets two opportunities to blow into the breathalyzer and the machine takes the lower of the two readings.

A breath-alcohol level higher than .08 is considered driving while impaired.

“It all depends on how good a sample you’re giving,” said Stephen Morgart from the FTA Branch. “The instrument requires a minimum sample of air, and some people blow hard the first time, and that test might be a .16. Then they blow a second time, and they blow barely enough to activate the instrument.”

But Morgart said there’s rarely much difference between the two readings.

“People do refuse, and they lose their license for a year,” Morgart said, referring to the North Carolina statute on refusing a breathalyzer test. Refusal is also permissible evidence in court.

He said it’s usually better to take the test.

The breathalyzer mouthpiece. The BAT Mobile has everything needed to perform breathalyzer tests and maintain the evidence so that it’s admissible in court. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Morgart said each time he sets up the mobile testing facility, he has to recalibrate and recertify the machines so that the evidence collected is permissible in court.

“Every time we set up, we do a brand-new preventive maintenance,” he said.

Beyond alcohol

Some drivers, however, haven’t been drinking but using other substances that also impair their ability to drive. There’s no “bright line” of a blood level to measure intoxication with many substances.

That’s where the “red room” comes into use.

Drug-recognition experts “identify people who are drugged driving, as opposed to drunk driving,” said George Francis from the FTA Branch.

Red lights help drug-recognition experts see changes in pupils and other physical symptoms that indicate intoxication with substances other than alcohol. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

These specially trained experts sit with a person suspected of driving under the influence of substances and check for physical signs such as pupil dilation, clammy skin or erratic behavior.

“They’ll identify the type of drug that someone might be on and then approximate if they’re legally impaired,” Francis said.

Next to the red room is a waiting area and a magistrate’s office. The legal work gets done on site.

Instead of paneled courtrooms, magistrates work in a small room at the back of the van. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“You go to see the magistrate and the magistrate either takes away their license or assigns them a court date right on the spot,” Morgart said. “If they refuse, they take the license right there.”

The magistrate also decides if someone who has been arrested gets to go home or needs to be taken from the location to the local police department.

When it’s all said and done, a conviction can cost upwards of $10,000, Morgart said.

Stephen Morgart shows off the BAT Mobile to visitors from the state health directors’ annual conference. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“If you lose, your insurance goes up quite a bit,” he said. It usually quadruples.”

The buses are deployed about 400 times a year for roadblocks. Each mobile unit can process as many as 25 to 30 people a night.

N.C. Department of Justice statistics show that males in their 20s have the highest number of arrests for driving under the influence. Most arrests take place, predictably, on Saturday nights.

The units make the rounds to high schools, colleges and other educational venues as part of the Division of Public Health’s prevention campaign.

But the buses more than pay for themselves, Francis said.

Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“Each of them earns about $700,00 a year from fines and fees,” he said. “When people pay that restoration fee, that helps run our program.”

“It doesn’t stop with just recognizing and identifying and taking impaired persons off the road; it also keeps on going as we try to get them into treatment,” said Staley. “As we are working and giving them all those papers they don’t want to see, we’re actually handing out treatment information too, trying to link them with substance abuse treatment in the community.”

The Forensic Tests for Alcohol Branch hands out branded beer koozies as part of their “Booze It & Lose It” advertising campaign. “Who says we don’t have a sense of humor,” Division of Public Health head Danny Staley quipped.

Correction: This story originally called the units “BATmobiles,” however, since receipt of a cease and desist letter sent to NC DHHS by DC Comics, the vehicles are officially called “BAT Mobile Units.”

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One reply on “Calling the BAT Mobile (Unit)”

  1. This is why drunk/impaired driving is so common. The penalties are a joke. I’m sure the same upstanding citizens that choose to get behind the wheel while intoxicated will never drive while their license is suspended. A scan through any counties weekly mugshots and you will see plenty of people busted while driving on a suspended license, so that doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. Get in an accident and cause serious injuries to someone innocent and you may spend a few years in jail while they suffer a life changing injury. Kill someone and you might get a few more unless you have affluenza then you get off with a wrist slap. Now these BATmobiles make the process easy for the criminals. We wouldn’t want to incovenience them with pesky court dates or anything. What’s next with this “drive-thru” service, can you prepay for future violations.

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