When Nancy Reagan launched her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign in the early 1980s, many programs against intoxicated driving also caught steam. These campaigns began small, but their messages were effective; liquor and beer advertisements now often focus on responsible consumption – if broadcast networks allow them to air at all – and most states have strict laws against driving while intoxicated.
Even so, Mothers Against Drunk Driving estimates approximately 159 million alcohol-impaired driving trips are taken each year.
As a leader in the ignition interlock industry, Smart Start Inc. has developed a range of services and technology to help keep intoxicated drivers off the road. Based in Irving, Texas, Smart Start offers small, electronic alcohol analyzers that keep drivers with DWIs and DUIs from operating vehicles if their breath alcohol level is over a pre-set limit. President Jim Ballard notes Smart Start is the only firm in the industry to provide comprehensive manufacturing, installation, call center, service and monitoring and reporting services.
“Our service delivery network really makes us unique,” he stresses. “We offer products, software and services. We book appointments with drivers who need our products, interface with the courts and attorneys, and can provide a variety of reports on any given user. If a product isn’t working, we can service it at one of our locations.”
Ballard explains the ignition interlock industry was relatively unknown when Smart Start was founded in 1992, but the company has worked extensively to educate states and other entities on the benefits of this technology. Smart Start says its devices are a cost-effective alternative to jail or license suspension, and it has staff on hand 24/7 for users or states to contact with any issues. The users of the devices pay for the service, not the state or tax dollars.
“We operate in 39 states and in Australia, France, Sweden and Denmark,” Ballard says. “For the most part, if we aren’t in a certain state, it’s because the laws don’t support this technology or a contract for this type of technology isn’t available.”
Passing the Test
All of Smart Start’s interlock devices – which are about the size of a deck of cards – are wired into a vehicle’s ignition system. Drivers must take and pass a test that screens for deep-lung breath alcohol; if drivers do not pass the test, the interlock device disables the ignition system and the vehicle cannot be started. The company’s devices and technology have improved over the years, but they all have the same basic purpose. Smart Start says it has prevented more than 5.7 million alcohol starts since its inception.
“Many companies offer interlock products, but our state-of-the-art devices are built for reliability and are equipped with proprietary technology that delivers accurate monitoring and flexible reporting,” Ballard says. “Our IN-HOM device, for example, is not new technology for the interlock industry, but we have improved on it. IN-HOM is unique because it captures the user’s photo and is very affordable at well under $100 a month. Most other products like this cost from $300 to $500 per month. We plan to expand this line as it becomes more successful.”
In the Driver’s Seat
Smart Start designs its products in-house and sources the devices’ raw materials. It maintains an inventory of materials and parts, but outsources fabrication to local vendors. “Having multiple manufacturers gives us the flexibility to respond to variances in market demand,” Ballard notes. “We source our own parts to get the best pricing.”
After the vendors deliver the finished products, Smart Start audits every device for quality, loads the necessary technology and distributes the devices to the company’s points of service. Ballard explains the devices primarily all have the same technology and features, but the company programs the devices based on the state’s needs – such as how often users have to take a test, how the data is reported and what makes a user in violation of the court order. Users can go to any service center in any state if they have problems.
The company primarily sells its devices through franchises, depending on the state. “In Texas, Colorado, Washington and Oklahoma, we go in and set up contacts and points of services at 12-volt stores,” Ballard explains. “Ours is just another product line for them to sell, install and service. Franchisees operate our business in other states.
“The franchisee sets up the points of service and manages the service network within his or her territory, which is usually state-wide,” he adds. “They also market our brand to consumers and the monitoring authorities. We have our own stores in Texas because the volume is there, but we don’t own independent services centers in other states because the business model doesn’t support that.”
The design of Smart Start’s software, firmware, and ERP system – Smart Track – is done in-house at its corporate headquarters; this is also where its call center is based. Users can reach employees at the Irving location to schedule their installation, removal and service appointments, and reports for the monitoring authorities are generated from this site, as well.
“The reports include data that comes out of the interlock devices – we develop the report format based on the laws and needs of the state,” Ballard says.
Locking Up the Market
Smart Start is making a number of improvements to enhance its services. Ballard says the company hired a consultant who is an expert in call center management to gain efficiencies in department and better help users and authorities. To improve its products and design capabilities, it also added a director to the engineering team and plans to hire another firmware designer soon.
Additionally, Smart Start is restructuring some of its internal operations to better align its organizational flow, Ballard notes. “We have very high standards for our products, and we will start the ISO certification process soon,” he says. “Our manufacturers already are required to be ISO-certified, but we want to meet the ISO standards internally, too.”
The company is improving to better serve its current clients, but also to support its growth. Ballard says most of Smart Start’s growth in the United States will be in existing business, but international expansion will allow it to enter new markets.
“In terms of growing internationally, we’re going to focus on Europe for now,” he explains. “The market is slowly expanding and we have the products when demand gets better. We primarily serve offender programs in the United States and Australia, but Sweden and Denmark require more commercial applications because they don’t have extensive offender laws. Eventually, because of our commercial applications, I expect to see our devices on over-the-road vehicles, buses, taxis and trains in Europe. We just have to educate the markets about our industry and then show them what Smart Start can do.”