It's about the size of a cell phone. It makes beeping sounds, has buttons on the front and plugs into a vehicle's dashboard.
But instead of an antenna on top, this device has a tube that a driver must blow into before turning the ignition key. If the driver's blood-alcohol level is above a certain limit, the car won't start.
These so-called "ignition interlock" devices have been around since the 1980s, but changes to Kansas law mean that in coming years more offenders convicted of driving under the influence will be required to have them.
"It's going to be, I would say, five to 10 times more people at the end of next year than at the end of this year," said Lawrence resident Matt Strausz, who owns a Smart Start franchise that provides ignition-interlock equipment in 13 locations across Kansas.
Under Kansas law, anyone with a second, third or fourth DUI has a suspended driver's license for one year. After that, there's a one-year period in which the person can drive only with an ignition-interlock device, which costs roughly $2 per day to rent and around $75 to install.
It's a requirement many convicted drunken drivers have ignored in the past.
Few obey restriction
A survey in 2005 found that only 18 percent of Kansas drivers required to get an ignition-interlock device did so. The rest were driving without one, hoping they didn't get pulled over and then applying to have their licenses reinstated at the end of the one-year period.
Since July 1, drivers who are ordered to get ignition interlocks must send documentation to the state that they've had a system installed. Their privileges won't be reinstated until the system has been on for one year, said Marcy Ralston, chief of the state's driver control bureau.
Another change to state law could have an even greater effect on the number of drivers blowing into a tube: In the past, the state counted only the number of DUIs a person had in a five-year period. But as of July 2005, all prior DUIs in the person's lifetime count against them on their driving record, so even someone with a DUI decades ago would be considered a second-time offender if caught again.
"I think the changes are good for public safety," Ralston said.
MADD issues call
Recent events have put ignition-interlock devices in the spotlight in Kansas and elsewhere. On Nov. 20, Mothers Against Drunk Driving issued a call for all states to begin requiring first-time DUI offenders, not just repeat offenders, to have one placed in their automobiles.
The same week, it was revealed that the driver of a Kansas State University fan bus involved in a deadly accident in Lawrence was required to use ignition interlock because of past DUIs.
John Frydman, a Lawrence criminal defense attorney, said he supports the idea of making first-time drunken drivers get an interlock device.
"Instead of increasing jail times and fines and confiscation of vehicles and permanent revocation of licenses, they should make these mandatory on a first" DUI, Frydman said. "People are going to drive even if they lose their license, so then it just perpetuates the criminality, and then they get into more trouble."
Between January and October 2006, 1,143 of the state's roughly 2 million drivers were restricted by the state's Division of Motor Vehicles to drive only with an ignition-interlock device. In that same time, however, only 254 people had them installed.
The actual effectiveness of the devices remains a subject of debate. In an article published this week in BusinessWeek, Lawrence Taylor, a prominent California DUI attorney, called them inaccurate, easily circumvented and, because they require the person to give breath samples while driving, dangerous.
He cited a 2004 study from the California Department of Motor Vehicles that found, among other things, there was "no evidence" that interlocks were an effective traffic safety measure for first-time DUI offenders.