Drivers say Smart Start is taking them for a ride

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by Meredith Yeomans

azfamily.com

Posted on November 13, 2009 at 12:05 PM

Updated Thursday, Nov 19 at 8:05 PM

PHOENIX -- Just one DUI will have you blowing into a breathalyzer connected to your car's ignition for a year. But some drivers having to do this are complaining about one of the companies that makes the breathalyzer units. They say Smart Start is taking them for a ride.

Since pleading guilty to his first DUI last October, Fred Long has had to pass a breathalyzer test inside his car before he can start the engine and go anywhere.

There are eight Arizona companies that make the  ignition interlock device that required by state law for DUI offenders. Long chose a company called Smart Start to install his device.  Now, though, he's convinced that Smart Start is taking him for a ride, and he says he's not alone.

"I think everybody is being scammed from it," Long said. "I've heard so many people tell me that once they get it in their car, they can't ever get it out."

A person who has been convicted of drunk driving and has an interlock device installed must return to the company that makes the device -- in this case Smart Start -- once a month for something called a compliance check. That check tests for device tampering or intoxication.

Information from the installed device is downloaded and sent electronically to Smart Start's home office in Irving, Texas. The information is then sent to Arizona's Motor Vehicle Division.

The process should take about one day, but according to a former Smart Start employee who wanted to remain anonymous, the turn-around time was frequently longer.

"What the company was doing in Texas was that they were withholding that information until months after the download was done," the former employee said.

By withholding that information, the former employee claims that drivers like Long missed the 15-day window to challenge any discrepancies. By not being able to contest the test results, drivers could be penalized and forced to keep the ignition interlock device in their cars for up to another year. That's an extra year per violation.

"It's one thing to mes up while doing your time," the former employee said. "But it's another thing to withhold that information so you have to pay extra money."

At a cost of about $80 per compliance check, Long says he could be looking at paying about an extra $2,500 if violations detected during his compliance checks stick.

"I've had violations going down the road if I was drinking Starbucks coffee," Long said. "Eating a donut or a piece of pizza, I've had it go off on me."

In a statement to 3 On Your Side, Smart Start denied ever intentionally delaying customer information, saying, "The complaints you received recently stemmed from a change we made to our reporting software, and in that change we had a bug which caused some reports to be delayed ... by more than several days."

Smart Start says it found the problem within 24 hours and corrected it.

In the meantime, Arizona's MVD says it is not aware of any problems with Smart Start's data.

Long, however, sees things differently. He hopes that sooner rather than later he'll be breathing a sigh of relief instead of breathing into a machine.

Smart Start said that although it has not received many complaints from Arizona customers, it will investigate and discount monthly service fees if it finds that the company was the cause of an extension.

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