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.
Photo via

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.

What are some other ways people try to bypass the system?

A lot of people will hit their starter solenoid. You can bypass that and start your vehicle. It’ll show up on the report, though, and when it [does] ... they report it to driver control and that person isn’t eligible for an interlock anymore. That’s the number one way.

Another way, people sometimes will just get in there and mess with the wiring. But you can tell. I have tamper tape on there, so when that seal’s broken, you can tell somebody has messed with their device. Another way is people with a standard transmission will try to pop the clutch and start the vehicle. And it’ll work, but [it also shows up on the report].

"He crashed into a tree and killed both he and his passenger. I remember I had to go get the interlock out of the car, and it looked like a crushed can."

When we were chatting before, I was surprised to hear that another way to bypass the system was to offer you a bribe.

Oh yeah! Yes, I’ve had people offer me bribes before. I’ve told them “No, this is the thing with that....”

I had a kid when I was working in Wynne, a little town just south of Jonesboro. I was over there servicing interlocks one day and he’d always showed up for his appoints, but he never showed up one time. 

And I called him, called his work. They said, “Well, you haven’t heard? He died in a car wreck.” He was drinking and driving. I guess he was having someone blow into [the IID] for him.

He was just an 18-year-old kid, I don’t remember his name or anything, it’s been so long. He crashed into a tree and killed both [he and his passenger]. They weren’t wearing their seatbelts. It threw them out of the front windshield about 30 feet. So he hit a tree and it killed him. I remember I had to go get the interlock out of [the car], and it looked like a crushed can. After I saw that—‘cause I wasn’t going to bypass anyone’s interlock for them anyway—but that right there actually brought it to light about how dangerous it is.

That sounds like the roughest part of the job, having to go to these wrecks and pulling out the systems from the cars of people who’ve messed up.

Yeah, that was hard. I had to go over there and I had to pull that out of the vehicle. I just knew that he was young and ... when you’re young, when you’re 18 years old you think you’re [invincible]. He was an alright kid, he just needed to grow up, and I know part of growing up is being reckless, but boy, you gotta be more [careful] than that ... it’s just too bad.

[People are] going to make up stories about how it’s an inconvenience and this and that. But that’s what it’s there for. It’s suppose to teach them a lesson. Folks need to realize how dangerous it is, that’s why they have these laws.

I would never want to be responsible [for] someone dying. Because, some people just can’t help themselves. There’s a lot of people with addictive personalities. I see that.

I’ve seen all kinds of people who can’t stop. And with those personalities, you know, that’s where alcoholics come from. Not saying that a majority of my clients are alcoholics, but there are a few out there that have problems with alcohol and you can tell. Because a lot of my clients, I know this, they make mistakes. That’s what a lot of people go through. I won’t see them again. But there’s those few I see more than once. I see them two or three times. Then you know they got issues.

Do you think IIDs are the best deterrent, as opposed to fines or jail or suspension of licence?

Well, they do it all now with DWIs. The interlock is part of it and then ... in Arkansas they have to also attend alcohol counseling and go to a victim impact panel, which is MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. They go to that and the MADD victim impact panel is usually someone that has [had] a family member killed by a drunk driver.

All of it, I think, works together and it teaches them—it hits them with the fines, it hits you in the pocket with the money. With the interlock, it teaches you that driving is a privilege. And it also teaches you, with the counseling classes, how dangerous [driving] is with alcohol.

Is bribery common?

No, it doesn’t happen very often. It’s rare. That may happen about once a year. But when it does, I tell people the story about that kid [who crashed his car] and I say, “Look, I didn’t do anything for him, but what if I had? What if I had done something for him?” That puts things into perspective.

Jeff Winkler has written for VICE magazine, The Awl and The Billfold, among others. He also wrote Drying Out With Jesus for The Fix.

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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.