Trend toward in-vehicle alcohol-monitoring devices comes to Anniston
by Madasyn Czebiniak
Dec 08, 2013 | 5272 views |  0 comments | 81 81 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Alan Harrelson holds a Smart Start device that is installed into an automobile. The device is designed to keep people that have a problem with alcoholism from driving under the influence. They have to blow into the device on the left and if they are drunk their car will not start. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
Alan Harrelson holds a Smart Start device that is installed into an automobile. The device is designed to keep people that have a problem with alcoholism from driving under the influence. They have to blow into the device on the left and if they are drunk their car will not start. (Photo by Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
Local judges now may have an easier time helping motorists convicted of drunken driving comply with a state law passed in 2012.

That’s because a local company now is offering computerized systems designed to keep motorists convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol from doing so again.

Smart Start Inc. and McCord Communications have opened an Anniston service center for those required to have alcohol monitoring systems installed in their vehicles. The systems are required for many drivers convicted of DUI according to the tenets of a law passed by the Legislature in 2012. The law often has been difficult to enforce, because the devices are not available in all areas of the state, law enforcement officials have said.

The center, located at McCord’s building at 15th and Noble streets, offers installations, calibrations and system training services for those court-ordered to have what are known as “ignition interlock alcohol monitoring systems.”

There is at least some market for the service. In the past 12 months there have been 111 DUI convictions in Calhoun County, according to staff in the Calhoun County Circuit Clerk’s Office.

Police stop many more people on suspicion of driving drunk. Since December 2012, Jacksonville police have made 41 DUI arrests. Oxford officers have made 36 since then, and Anniston police have made 178 DUI arrests since January. Calhoun County sheriff’s deputies made 41 such arrests in 2012.

The consequences of such behavior can be deadly. There were 170 motor vehicle accidents involving alcohol in Calhoun County in 2012. Of those accidents, 101 resulted in injuries and led to one person’s death, according to data from the Alabama Department of Public Safety.

A state law passed in 2012 requires drivers convicted of driving under the influence with a blood alcohol content of 0.15 or higher to have an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle.

Ignition interlocks are handheld alcohol breath analyzers electronically connected to a vehicle’s ignition. Drivers breathe into the devices, which measure the amount of alcohol in their bodies. If the driver’s blood-alcohol level is greater than a given number, the car won’t start. While the vehicle is in motion the device will also ask the driver to periodically provide breath samples to make sure no one else has blown into it.

The period of time offenders are required to keep the devices installed in their vehicles varies by how many times they’ve been convicted of DUI. First and second-time offenders are required to keep ignition interlock devices on their cars for two years. Third-time offenders must keep the devices for three years and fourth-time offenders for five.

McCord Communications CEO Dan Catan said that the main goal of the company’s service center is to provide offenders with a sensitive and private method to fulfill their sentence.

“It allows you to conduct a normal life, driving wherever you want to if you don’t drink,” he said.

According to the Smart Start website, alcohol monitoring systems are cost-effective alternatives to jail time or license suspension for offenders because they allow them to continue living normal lives.

Pamela Morton, the state victim coordinator for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told The Star by phone Thursday that her organization is concerned with saving lives. Morton said she believes ignition interlock systems help do so.

Other organizations, such as the American Beverage Institute, disagree. The group is a trade association representing restaurants and other businesses that serve alcohol.

An editorial published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in January by the group’s managing director, Sarah Longwell, said ignition interlocks are not a true solution for offenders. According to Longwell, those who drink and drive will re-offend at nearly identical rates once interlocks are removed.

Offenders pay the cost of the devices. According to Alan Harrelson, the technical services team leader at McCord, an ignition interlock system can cost anywhere from $75 to $1,500 depending on whether someone wants to lease or purchase a device, and installation costs anywhere from $75 to $150. Offenders must bring their systems back to the center monthly to have it re-calibrated.

Some of the systems offered at the center are designed for more serious offenders such as those who need constant monitoring as they drive and those who do not own a vehicle but still need their blood alcohol levels tested.

Karen Christopher, the general manager at McCord, said the center has already installed one system, which was court-ordered for a defendant by Calhoun County District Judge Beth Rogers, and is waiting on another.

Rogers said by phone Wednesday she believes the center will benefit the county but declined to comment further, stating she was uncomfortable being quoted in The Star.

Two phone messages left for District Judge Chris McIntyre, who also handles DUI cases, were not returned by Friday afternoon.

In addition to the interlock devices, McCord and Smart Start believe there is a market for breath testers that allow users not convicted of DUI to check their blood-alcohol levels. Both Catan and Christopher said local bartenders might be potential clients for personal breath testers and mentioned that some residents have asked to buy personal breath testers for their loved ones. The company has sold about a dozen personal breath testers, according to Catan.

Francis Allbritton, who bartends at the Peerless Grille in Anniston, said that in her experience, patrons don’t take personal breath testers seriously. Many customers pass the devices around as a gag to see what limit they’re at, she said.

Asked if the use of personal breath testers could help bars stop patrons from hurting themselves or others, Allbritton said it’s a bartender’s duty to know when to stop serving someone who has the potential to be dangerous.

“Honestly, if they get to that point, a bartender shouldn’t be serving them anyway,” she said.

Staff writer Madasyn Czebiniak: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @MCzebiniak_Star.

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