Installations of the interlock ignition devices are part of a growth industry

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Posted: Sunday, June 2, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 6:34 pm, Mon May 26, 2014.

It's a product nobody wants. It interferes with something as simple, but necessary, as starting your car. You can't buy one, but instead have to pay a monthly lease.

And yet it's increasingly popular in Nebraska and Iowa, two states that are ahead of most others when it comes to encouraging or requiring drivers arrested or convicted of drunken driving to have them attached to their cars.

To top it off, the product — known formally as an ignition interlock device and informally as an interlock — is part of a growth industry, with courts requiring more of them. Starting Jan. 1 in Nebraska, they'll have cameras to take digital photos when drivers blow into the device.

How they work

>> The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration approves interlock devices, and states authorize devices that meet requirements. Company-owned or licensed installers put the devices into cars and calibrate them monthly, downloading the data for use by court officials such as probation officers.

>> When a driver blows into the hand-held device about the size of a large cell phone, the breath goes through a chamber with a chemical sensor that includes a platinum surface. Alcohol in the breath causes a chemical reaction, generating an electric current and triggering a reading equivalent to the amount of alcohol in the driver's bloodstream.

>> The devices are set according to each state's standards to prevent a car from starting. Drivers must re-do the test every so often while they are driving. If the driver fails while driving, the device records the failure but does not shut off the car.

A “clean blow” means the driver can start a car and drive. But if the device detects alcohol in a driver's breath, the car won't start, an instant penalty that can be aggravating and, authorities hope, behavior-modifying.

There's no official count of how many drivers are using interlocks, but Nebraska is on pace this year to issue more than 5,000 court-authorized interlock permits, and Iowa somewhat more. The number of Nebraska permits doubled from 2011 to 2012 because a change in state law added incentives to use interlocks.

Nebraska issued 4,859 permits in 2012 and another 1,716 through May 1 this year. Officers each year arrest about 12,500 people in Nebraska and 25,000 in Iowa for drunken driving. Of those, about 40 percent in Nebraska and 25 percent in Iowa end up with interlocks on their vehicles for some period of time.

If a state has 5,000 interlocks in place at any one time, that's a $4 million-a-year industry, based on lease payments of $75 a month. The money is divided among licensed installers, dealers who supply the devices and the manufacturers that make federally approved interlocks. Dozens of places across Nebraska and Iowa install the devices.

Nationally, about 300,000 of the devices are in place at a cost of about $300 million, borne mostly by drunken driving offenders. Even so, most estimates indicated that less than half the people who should be using interlocks actually have them.

There are efforts under way nationally to bring that number up.

“Nobody's proud to have one,” said Bill Gass, a regional manager for Smart Start of Nebraska, one of seven companies offering interlocks in the state. “The good side is, most of them understand that they messed up, but at least with this I can still have my job and get my kids to school.”

The devices, although embarrassing and inconvenient, help convince people that it's better to drive without being impaired and without risking arrest. And they aren't as inconvenient and disruptive as being stopped by police for violating a court order or as dangerous as driving after drinking.

“I get to see a lot of changes in people,” said Steve Carey, who oversees Draeger Safety Diagnostics' five company-owned installation shops and dozen or so authorized shops in Nebraska, such as the Cornhusker Auto Wash at 10205 S. 25th St.

The economics of the devices are positive when you consider that they can prevent deaths, injuries, property damage, loss of jobs and other damaging effects of drunk driving. Most of the cost is borne by those arrested for drunk driving, although courts and other government agencies spend time and money monitoring the devices.

At least some drivers use interlocks without being under the court's control, sometimes because a spouse or parents insist and sometimes voluntarily as an extra safeguard against the urge to drive under the influence.

“When they keep them on afterwards, they're just trying to keep themselves honest, trying to keep themselves out of trouble, because the chance of them making a mistake is still there,” Carey said.

Draeger Safety Diagnostics Inc. of Irving, Texas, offers a discount for people willing to keep the devices on cars after their court requirements end, said Harlan Williams, a regional supervisor. “We've had some given as a birthday present,” he said, but 95 percent are because of court mandates.

Lorelle Mueting, prevention coordinator for Heartland Family Services, said she doesn't know of a person trying to recover from alcohol addiction who uses an interlock voluntarily. But being arrested, jailed and required to use one of the devices often is the “rock bottom” experience that prompts people to seek treatment.

Mueting said people addicted to alcohol must take steps to end drinking altogether. “The problem is addiction, and a DUI is a symptom of the problem.”

Nebraska ranks sixth and Iowa eighth among the states in interlocks per 1,000 residents, said Richard Roth, a retired New Mexico physics professor and advocate for the use of interlocks.

Federal changes removed restrictions on people who drive with the interlock devices, a step Roth favors. “We want them to drive and support their families and pay taxes and receive the behavior modification training from getting rewarded when they are sober.”

Roth's goal is to require interlocks for all convicted offenders, a move supported by all the major traffic safety and anti-drunk-driving groups.

Rhonda Lahm, director of the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles, said there's no way to know how many people are using interlocks at any one time because the permits expire at varying times, some after a few months and some after several years.

Some people may get permits but not follow through to get interlocks, she said. The permit figures also don't include people who have them installed without court action, such as part of an alcohol treatment program.

Susan Bazis, presiding judge for the Douglas County Court, said it's difficult to make all offenders use the devices. Some apply for the permits as required but never get them, telling the court that they no longer drive or don't have a car. Sometimes that's the truth, sometimes not, Bazis said.

In the end, she said, it doesn't matter whether someone uses the interlock correctly, refuses to get one or drives somebody else's car after a night on the town. “They need to stop drinking and driving.”

Roth, the New Mexico interlock advocate, said it's important to focus on getting more drivers to use interlocks rather than adding sanctions for someone who tries to start a car after drinking but can't because of the interlock. If courts end up spending extra money on monitoring interlocks, they may lose their focus on getting interlocks into more drivers' cars, he said.

“The interlock is a 24-7 probation officer in the front seat of the car,” at no cost to taxpayers, Roth said. “That's main thing you would like to achieve, with 100 percent of those who are arrested or convicted of drunk driving. No one is near that goal yet.”

Contact the writer:

402-444-1080, steve.jordon@owh.com, twitter.com/buffettOWH

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