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What If Your Smartphone Could Tell When You're Drunk?

What If Your Smartphone Could Tell When You’re Drunk?

Your smartphone could tell when you’ve had too much to drink by detecting changes in the way you walk, according to a new study.

Having real-time information about intoxication could be important to help people reduce alcohol consumption, prevent drinking and driving, or alert a sponsor for someone in treatment, according to lead researcher Brian Suffoletto, M.D., who was with the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine when the research was conducted and is now with Stanford University School of Medicine’s Department of Emergency Medicine.

“We have powerful sensors we carry around with us wherever we go,” Suffoletto said. “We need to learn how to use them to best serve public health.”

For the study, the researchers recruited 22 adults between the ages of 21 to 43. Volunteers came to a lab and received a mixed drink with enough vodka to produce a breath alcohol concentration of .20 percent. They had one hour to finish the drink.

For the next seven hours, participants had their breath alcohol concentration analyzed and performed a walking task every hour. For this task, researchers placed a smartphone on each participant’s lower back, secured with an elastic belt. Participants walked a straight line for 10 steps, turned around, and walked back 10 steps, the researchers explained.

The smartphones measured acceleration and mediolateral (side to side), vertical (up and down) and anteroposterior (forward and backward) movements while the participants walked.

About 90 percent of the time, the researchers said they were able to use changes in gait to identify when participants’ breath alcohol concentration exceeded .08 percent, the legal limit for driving in the United States.

“This controlled lab study shows that our phones can be useful to identify ‘signatures’ of functional impairments related to alcohol,” Suffoletto said.

Although placing the smartphone on the lower back does not reflect how people carry their cell phones in real life, the researchers plan to conduct additional research while people carry phones in their hands and in their pockets.

Suffoletto noted that his years of research on such digital interventions has been motivated by personal tragedy.

“I lost a close friend to a drinking and driving crash in college,” he said. “And as an emergency physician, I have taken care of scores of adults with injuries related to acute alcohol intoxication.

“In five years, I would like to imagine a world in which if people go out with friends and drink at risky levels, they get an alert at the first sign of impairment and are sent strategies to help them stop drinking and protect them from high-risk events like driving, interpersonal violence, and unprotected sexual encounters,” Suffoletto said.

Although this was a small investigation, the researchers note this is a proof-of-concept study that “provides a foundation for future research on using smartphones to remotely detect alcohol-related impairments.”

Researchers plan to not only build on this research detecting real-world signatures of alcohol-related impairment but also identify the best communication and behavioral strategies to influence and support individuals during high-risk periods, such as intoxication.

The study was published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

Source: Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs

What If Your Smartphone Could Tell When You’re Drunk?

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2020). What If Your Smartphone Could Tell When You’re Drunk?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 22 Aug 2020 (Originally: 22 Aug 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 22 Aug 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.