Drinking & Driving on July 4th? Can You Beat a Breathalyzer Test?

Thanks to excess alcohol consumption, July 4th is the deadliest driving day of the year. If you find yourself inebriated at a DUI checkpoint blowing into a breathalyzer, you can thank Sir Ewart Ray Herbert Jones for the invention he published 75 years ago. Yep, you've been caught by organic chemistry, specifically, the Jones Oxidation.

It's summer. Finally. Winter is over. COVID is on its way out. But be careful. According to Autoinsurance.org, the most dangerous driving day of the year is upon us. On the 4th of July, about 450 people will die in auto accidents, putting it just slightly ahead of Memorial Day, both heavy drinking days. 

If you find yourself behind the wheel of a car at a DUI checkpoint tonight, having consumed 14 Jello shots, you are doomed (and rightfully so). But perhaps you can take some solace that you've been caught because of an important and widely-used chemical reaction that was invented in 1946 by Sir Ewart Jones – the Jones Oxidation. Yessiree, Dr. Jones is gonna do a number on your auto insurance rates. (1)

Blame him. Sir Ewart Ray Herbert Jones, Inventor of the Jones Oxidation. Photo: Academictree.org

Color yourself stupid

The Jones Oxidation is based on a  simple chemical transformation involving the color change of chromium (VI) (orange) to chromium (III) (green) when it reacts with alcohol. These are not the only two of the colors that chromium compounds can form. Chromium gets its name from chrôma,  the Greek word for color. And those Greeks weren't kidding around.

Chromium salts and oxides. The color is dependent upon the oxidation state. Oxidation state is denoted by Roman numerals in parentheses. Images: Wikipedia

But if the police ask you to walk a straight line and you can only manage a rhombus, there is only one chromium color you'll have to worry about—green, the color of chromium oxide, and also of money – the stuff you're going to have to shell out in vast quantities to a lawyer to try to keep your dumb ass out of the slammer. 

Redox Chemistry Caused Your Downfall

The Jones Oxidation: Alcohol is oxidized with chromic acid (made from sodium dichromate plus sulfuric acid) to form acetic acid (vinegar). The chromium III (orange-yellow) is immediately reduced to chromium VI, which is green. 

Can you beat the breathalyzer test? Rumors from the Internet

Is there any way that you can defeat Dr. Jones? Dr. Internet thinks so, but let's see which doctor wins. Here are some of the rumors that are circulated about getting out of the mess. Are any of them legitimate? Let's look.

  • Putting a penny under your tongue.

Does absolutely nothing. You might as well stick a bitcoin under there. This is, admittedly, impossible.

  • Using mouthwash.

Not only will this not help, but it could even give a false positive. Listerine (and if there's a worse tasting liquid in the universe, please let me know) contains alcohol, so if you just gargled, you could test positive. But, it will fade quickly, and there will be no alcohol in your blood. No time in the slammer, at least from the mouthwash.

  • Breathe in and out like a madman before the cop gets to you.

Save your breath. The alcohol is coming from your lungs via the blood. So it will be pumped out at a slow, steady rate no matter how much you huff and puff. 

  • Suck on a mint.

Like rapid breathing, it does nothing to neutralize alcohol. You can just add the cost of the mint to the mint that your lawyer is going to charge you.

  • Eat peanut butter.

Some kind of nut came up with this one. Does nothing.

  • Try to bribe the cop.

Now, there's a splendid idea! Why not get two felonies for the price of one?

Sorry, guys. You can't beat the test. The only thing that will get your blood (and breath) levels down is time. Or abstinence.

Happy Independence Day. Bottom's up if you wish. But be careful. Dr. Jones is watching from his grave. 


(1) The colorimetric test is rarely used now. It has been largely replaced by different electronic instruments.