NORTH AUGUSTA -- A North Augusta public safety officer working traffic patrol pulled over the youthful driver of a car in a routine traffic stop. The officer leaned against the side of the car and placed his flashlight in the open window of the driver's side.
"Have you boys been drinking," he asked the four youthful occupants inside.
"Oh no. We haven't been drinking," the driver assured him.
The officer clicked on his flashlight and, after a moment, had good reason to suspect the young men were not being entirely truthful.
He reached that conclusion when a tiny light on a scale embedded in the shaft of the flashlight crept upward, turning from a pale yellow to a deep, dark orange at the top. The movement of that light provided him with probable cause to ask the driver of the car to take a sobriety field test for alcohol impairment.
Such a traffic stop occurred recently on the streets of North Augusta, said Lt. Tim Pearson, traffic patrol supervisor.
The alcohol screening instrument the officer used is a special flashlight called a P.A.S.III, and Lt. Pearson believes it will be an effective weapon in the fight to keep drunken drivers off the road.
The public safety department now has four of the flashlights, thanks to a highway safety grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the South Carolina Public Safety Department. These are about to be used routinely in traffic stops and sobriety checkpoints.
"The flashlight uses a passive alcohol sensor, and it lets us make a noninvasive check for alcohol by testing the ambient air within the car," Lt. Pearson said.
The P.A.S. device draws in air for a nearly instantaneous sampling. When it is used to sample breath at about six to eight inches in front of the driver's mouth, detection of alcohol is reliable and accurate, he said.
The process works much like an officer sniffing a suspect's breath. It does not constitute a test in itself but may furnish cause to initiate a field sobriety test and, if necessary, a Breathalyzer test.
"They will be in use during the long Labor Day weekend," he said. "It's one of the deadliest weekends for impaired driving."
Nationally, 236 people were killed during the Labor Day weekend in 1997 with 7 percent of those deaths in South Carolina. Alcohol or other drugs were involved in the deaths of 200 people on the state's highways in 1997, according to the S.C. Department of Public Safety.
The news in North Augusta so far this year has been better than last, Lt. Pearson says. In 1997, 509 traffic accidents had occurred within the city limits by the end of July, with 162 injured and one death. During the same time frame this year, the number of accidents was down by six, and 22 fewer injuries were reported.
"The very good news is that so far no one has died in city traffic this year. We hope this new type of flashlight will keep it that way," Lt. Pearson said.