(Lorri Sughroue/McCook Daily Gazette)
LB 736, passed by the Nebraska Legislature this year, requires an ignition interlock device as part of sentencing for both first and second drunk driving convictions.
A little larger than a cell phone, the devices and installation are paid for by the offender. The vehicle will not start until the driver first blows into the device. If alcohol is detected, the engine is disabled. Once a month, offenders must go back to the service center and download data which is sent electronically to the probation officer.
Red Willow County Court Judge Anne Paine is optimistic about the new law.
"If it works the way the Legislature expects it to, I think it will be a good thing," she said. "Especially in rural areas, taking away the ability to drive is taking away how someone is going to support their family. Yet, we have to keep the public safe."
The Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles has approved five vendors in the state to install and maintain the devices, at seven locations, including one in McCook.
Beginning this month, the equipment will be leased by Smart Start of Nebraska at its service center at VK Electronics in McCook. Smart Start operates in six other locations in Nebraska along with other centers in Kansas.
This will be the only location to lease the devices in Southwest Nebraska and Northwest Kansas, said Matt Strausz of Smart Start of Nebraska. There is also a Smart Start of Kansas, he said
"In situations where people are required to have them, this will offer them a convenience rather than driving two hours somewhere else," Strausz said.
The devices are now sometimes required as part of probation sentences for drunk driving convictions, when the offender requests one to be able to work. Less than five have been ordered in Red Willow County.
Currently, work permits can be issued when those sentenced with probation follow recommendations of drug and alcohol evaluations.
But with LB736, the work permit may be eliminated as the interlock device will be mandated. Anyone convicted of first- or second-offense driving under the influence -- those with a blood alcohol content above the legal limit of .08 - will be required to use the device.
Currently, those convicted of a DUI with probation have their licenses suspended for two months. Under the new law, the license is still confiscated two months but offenders will have to drive the next four months with the interlock device.
Those currently convicted without probation have their licenses suspended for six months, but under LB 737, that will be changed to a one-month suspension with the remaining five months using the device.
Offenders will also be restricted in where they can drive, with only work, alcohol treatment, probation and interlock installation centers permitted.
The devices have come a long way from when they were first used but misconceptions about the equipment still abound, said Strausz.
One mistaken impression is that the devices are exorbitantly priced. Not so, he said. It actually costs about $2 dollars a day, he said, or about $60-70 per month, plus installation fees of $50.
Those who can't pay the costs of the device will be helped by those who can.
LB 736 requires a special driving permit for the device at $45 and of that, $40 will be set aside for the newly-created Ignition Interlock Device Fund, to be used by those who are indigent.
Smart Start's technology detects only ethyl alcohol, said Strausz, so false readings are virtually eliminated. This means eating hot peppers, smoking or car exhaust won't cause the machine to test positive, as it did in the past with other devices.
"These are reliable machines that won't get you stranded at Wal-Mart," he said.
A Smart Start device also records if it has been tampered with as well as requires drivers to take "rolling retests."
Additional measures make sure it's tamper proof, he said.
You can't just have a friend blow into it, he said, or use an air compressor to do the job. The device requires the driver to blow for a full seven seconds, the last three seconds with a vibration of the throat, similar to a humming sound. This way, the machine records the tone and the machine won't recognize other drivers.
Plus, for extra costs, judges can order devices that come with a small camera that can be mounted inside the car, to monitor the driver and passenger side of the vehicle.
According to Strauz, in Nebraska in 2007 there were 3,900 on probation for alcohol violations and of that, 300 were required to have interlock devices.
Next year, they are anticipating an increase of 4,000-5,000 on probation with 400-500 required to use the ignition interlock.
The device is a way to integrate the offender back into a productive life while keeping others safe on the road, said VK Electronics owner Linda Taylor.
"One out of four will be touched by drunk drivers...(interlock ignition devices) are important for safety on the roads and to make a difference in saving lives," she said.
"We realize that sometimes people make mistakes...we want to continue to help families to keep their jobs and to support those families who still need to get to their jobs."
For information about installing the device, call Smart Start of Nebraska at 1 (866) 747-8278.