Tales of a Breathalyzer Tech

By Jeff Winkler 10/29/12

Drunk-driving arrests surge over Halloween. Those caught can be required to get a breathalyzer installed in their car—by a technician like Tony. He tells The Fix about the culprits he meets, the bribes he refuses and the wrecks he sees.

Ignition Interlock Devices make sure a driver is sober before starting his or her car.
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My passenger pointed to the restaurant beside us. “They have a drink called ‘The Kilowatt,’” she said. It seemed like an inopportune time to bring this up. She was, after all, holding an unplugged breathalyzer device in her free hand. We were third in line—all of us convicted drunk drivers—waiting to get our lightsaber-sized gadgets checked and re-calibrated by Tony.

Tony is a 34-year-old independent contractor for an Ignition Interlock Device (IID) company. What’s an IID? It’s basically a piece of hardware that’s installed on a car to prevent it from being started unless the driver blows a clean blood-alcohol sample. About 249,000 IIDs are currently in use around the US—more than double the number in 2006—and the figures keep growing. Seventeen states now require first-time offenders to get the devices installed.

"I try to treat everyone with respect. I know that they don’t want to be in the situation they’re in. They know they’ve made a mistake, most of the time, and they just want to get it over with."

Mandatory IID installation has seen DWI recidivism rates drop by 8–10%. And people actually prefer the breathalyzers, because they enable them to keep driving for work or other obligations. A survey conducted in 2005 in New Mexico, the first state to require mandatory IIDs for first-time drunk drivers, showed that 85% of DWI offenders thought IIDs to be a fair punishment.

Once a month, Tony calls everyone in his Fayetteville, Ark., area who needs a device installed, checked or uninstalled. They meet at seemingly random spots, like near the "Kilowatt" restaurant, the local DMV or even a liquor-store parking lot. My companion said, "Tony’s great." He remembers your name and story, and even follows up on personal topics that might have come up during the five minutes it takes for him to do his thing.

Tony talks in a deep, quick rat-a-tat-tat, with a buried hint of Arkansas twang. “People have tried to bribe me before,” he tells me, to rig the breathalyzers so as not to detect drinking levels. Not that he can’t do it; he can. I ask about the going rate for breathalyzer sabotage. Tony says one guy offered him $800, another $1,000. And, like any self-respecting man, Tony thought about it.

“Someone offers you a thousand dollars, you don’t just forget about it,” he says. “I could’ve used it.” But there’s a moral reason Tony doesn’t take bribes. The story comes during our more in-depth conversation about his job, a couple of months later, as he drives to work at 7 am.

How big is the area you cover?

I cover Northwest Arkansas ... from Fort Smith up 540, up to Bella Vista [about 90 miles north/south]. Then I go across Highway 62, to Harrison, Mountain Home [about 120 miles east/west].

With that wide swath, how many devices do you service?

On average, about 15 to 20 installations per week. I have days where I just sit in Fayetteville and service everybody’s interlock, but in a month I probably service anywhere between 350 to 400 people.

Is there a certain type of person that gets the device?

There’s really not. You’d think it’d just be young people mostly. But really there’s not a discrimination there. I’ve had elderly people, middle-aged people. You see a lot of college kids who get ‘em. They make their mistakes young. I guess it’s better ... than when they’re old. But yeah, there’s really not a discrimination there. A lot of 40/50-year-olds, men and women. I’d say it’s pretty even, actually.

I saw you one time in Fayetteville. There was this woman who was 40-ish. You were uninstalling her device and she said, “Hope I never see you again. No offense.” Fairly polite. Is there a normal interaction with folks who are getting the device?

Yeah, I talk to everybody, [about] everyday stuff. I mean, I’m trying to run a business, so there is competition. I try to treat everyone with respect. I know that they don’t want to be in the situation they’re in. They know they’ve made a mistake, most of the time, and they just want to get it over with.

In your view, what is the best way of applying penalties for drunk drivers? You're the one who sees it everyday.

The [use of IID-connected cameras, which Washington State will soon require] is a good idea because it actually monitors who’s actually blowing into that device. You know, they’ve had cases ... of women, or even men, having their children blow into their device for them. And that’s dangerous, and careless. But they’ve had cases where that’s happened. And they found out about it. With the camera, the technology is going to be [able] to prevent people doing things like that.

But the interlocks we have now are good. If somebody tampers with the box, it’ll show up on the report. If they tamper with it or start the vehicle in any way besides through the interlock, it will tell them. And also it’ll tell us if the box has been disconnected on the reports. So if it’s been disconnected and they’ve driven miles on their car, you’re going to be able to tell the disparity.

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Jeff Winkler is a Nashville-based writer, video anchor, and documentary producer. He is the winner of the Carter Journalism Institute's Matthew Power Literary Reporting Award and you can find him on Twitter.