Alcohol cessation programs often require participants to stay off the booze entirely. This may be voluntary or required by a court order, but the task of watching for slip-ups can be both difficult and counter-productive. Under court mandated cessation, typically randomly assigned visits are required of offenders, but people tend to take risks knowing that there’s only a small chance that a test will be required. Moreover, the burden of testing can be substantial if the testing center is far from home and frequent visits are required.
We received a new device to review called SL2 from Soberlink, a company out of Cypress, California, that makes it easy to regularly screen people for alcohol use. We spent a couple weeks checking it out and pretending to quit while having limited self control. It was certainly an interesting experience that opened our eyes to the difficult reality of alcohol cessation programs and how technology can help overcome many of these challenges.
At its core the SL2 is a breathalyzer with a built in camera that is intended to be used on a regular basis to confirm sobriety throughout each day. A schedule is typically set by a therapist or parole officer and the user has to follow it strictly to stay in compliance. We had a three times daily regimen to follow, which included morning, afternoon, and night tests. To make sure that the user doesn’t forget, the system sends out reminder text messages 15 minutes prior to a scheduled test and then follow up warnings if a test is not performed.
The testing itself is pretty simple. Just press the power button to activate the Soberlink, insert a mouthpiece into the opening on the front, push the submit button, wait for the blue light to turn on, and blow into the tube for a few seconds. The blowing of air has to be pretty intense we found out, as many of the initial tests were rejected and we had to redo. Following a few tests, after getting an idea of how much air pressure the device expects, we were able to consistently submit tests on the first try.
At this point you might be wondering what would prevent someone from using a tea-totaling friend to fake test results. This is exactly where Soberlink stands out and nearly guarantees that no one is cheating. On the front of the device, just above the spot where the blow tube is a camera. As the breath test is performed, the device takes a picture of whoever is blowing and submits it along with the alcohol reading. Additionally, since the device has a built-in GPS, the location of the test is also submitted. Don’t worry though, the user doesn’t have to plug the unit into a computer nor have access to a WiFi connection to pass along the data. Instead, the Soberlink is able to reach the Internet via a Verizon cell signal, allowing for testing from just about anywhere.
Unlike your typical Soberlink user, we were also given access to the website that parole officers and rehab therapists would use to see how folks under their supervision are doing. Looking at our own tests, we see that each one comes with the alcohol reading, a photo taken during the test, as well as a verified photo to compare with, and the GPS location of where the test was performed. We were a bit startled at first seeing what we look like photographed from a short distance using a very wide lens. Having calmed down a bit, we wondered whether officers looking at these pics can really tell each time whether it’s the right person. Turns out that this is rarely required since the website actually performs facial recognition and only flags those tests where it can’t confirm a face. This means that as long as there’s enough lighting, user verification is completely automated.
As far as the construction of the device, it feels solid and even a bit luxurious, having a pleasant rubbery surround and a black front that slopes and looks quite slick. The Soberlink comes with a matching case that’s tough and doesn’t feel cheap, and within which there’s a special space for a spare mouthpiece.
We were very much impressed by the SL2, especially how easy it is to use. The process of complying with a sobriety schedule doesn’t involve the anxiety of random testing and not having to visit a testing center is a major advantage. Since the system is nearly fully automatic, therapists and officers can spend more time doing other things than tracking patients and making sure tests are performed properly and at the right time.