CHICAGO (Reuters.com) - Some 80 years ago John Ruocco's then16-year-old uncle was struck and killed by a drunk driver in the Bronx. Although it happened years before he was born, Ruocco grew up hearing about the tragedy from his parents, who witnessed it, and vowed to do something about drunk driving. A couple of years ago Ruocco finally made good on the promise, developing a test that sends real-time information about a driver's condition to local authorities.
Throughout my life, especially at parties, get-togethers, holidays, they always talked about this young man, what a nice person he was, and what a horrible death he suffered, said Ruocco, the founder and CEO of Interceptor Ignition Interlocks Inc., a startup based in Shirley, New York. That kind of stayed with me. I got into the business and developed this technology.
Ruocco's system builds on longstanding ignition interlock devices installed as a as a condition of parole for some convicted drunk drivers, testing those individuals with a breathalyzer before they turn on their cars and then randomly as they drive. It's also enabled to send unfavorable blood alcohol results directly to a 911 emergency center, allowing police to stop dangerous drivers before they harm civilians. Interceptor even uses a built-in camera to take pictures when drivers blow into the mouthpiece, ensuring that an impaired driver doesn't trick the system with a sober substitute.
I took a survey of the entire industry, what was good, what was bad, what was lacking, said Ruocco, 62, who began laying the groundwork for his idea in 2000.
Ruocco was no stranger to the telecoms industry. He previously owned his own switching company, providing operator services for pay phones, hospitals and private schools in the greater New York area.
To research the market for Interceptor, he reached out to judges, district attorneys, probation officers, police and other public officials - anybody who had an opinion about the effectiveness of installed breathalyzers - to get a handle on their shortcomings. He attended trade shows for groups such as the American Probation and Parole Association.
What I found was although the technology was around since 1975, there were no improvements made, he said. There was a basic rudimentary device.
In 2004, Ruocco hired an engineer and used his own money and an investment from his sister to develop the technology. To date, the company has raised more than $1.5 million in startup funding. Last year, it began selling units in earnest and now has about 450 on the road.
According to the National Highway Safety Administration, 32 people in the United States die each day in motor vehicle crashes involving a drunk driver, the equivalent of one death every 45 minutes.
It took several years, but Ruocco eventually produced a system that lives up to Interceptor's name. If a driver's blood alcohol level exceeds the limit, it delivers an automated voice prompt asking the person to pull over and kill the engine, which if ignored, causes the car's lights to flash, the horn to honk, and automatically transmits the offender's location to a local 911 dispatcher.
Every time a person on probation drives the car, his or her name, GPS location and other data are sent over the AT&T wireless network to a court website, allowing the assigned probation officer to monitor the driver's vehicle activity at all times.
Cathy Martine, AT&T's executive vice president for small business sales, said her company became aware of the idea for the technology when Ruocco came into one of their retail stores with a question about his bill. One thing led to another and before long, AT&T brought in its technical support and signed on to help with the project, she said.
I think this is the beginning of what you'll see from us in terms of applications that are really transformational in terms of how we think about technology, she said.
The total market for consumer-oriented services that connect telephone networks to vehicles after they're sold in North America is expected to reach 14.8 million subscriptions in 2015 from an estimated 2.4 million in 2009, according to Sam Lucero, a senior analyst with ABI Research.
I think this is fairly niche, he said of Interceptor, adding the industry is growing at a compounded annual rate of about 35 percent a year. The idea is fundamentally sound.
Public officials seem to agree.
I have great hopes for this, said Maureen McCormick, chief of vehicular crimes for the District Attorney's office in Nassau County, New York, which owns one of the state's worst records for drunk driving offenses. The suburban New York City county currently has about 50 of the devices in operation. The (testing) failure rate on Interceptors is generally smaller than other Interlocks.
BROADER CONSUMER USE
Ruocco is betting his device will have applications beyond the market of convicted offenders, with potential for commercially licensed drivers such as long-haul truckers as well as voluntary users like parents who want to keep their teens from driving under the influence.
The mandated market was a lead market because it was captive, he said. We don't have to advertise.
In the meantime, his fledgling six-man company will keep its overhead low, outsourcing installation to third-party providers. The company charges probationers a $90-per-month subscription fee; a rate Ruocco said is comparable to traditional interlocks. He's hoping the pricing strategy, along with stricter drunk-driving laws, such as a new law in New York that in August will require first-time offenders to install interlock devices, will help his product gain traction.
The Interceptor is certified in seven states - New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Idaho, Kansas, Colorado and Nebraska - and Ruocco has secured a patent for the real-time aspect of the system.
Ruocco is also receiving support from an unlikely group: former probationers. Tom Grogan was part of a pilot program testing the Interceptor in New York's Westchester County for two years, following his second drunk driving conviction in 2004 have become advocates. .
The other units are very easy to circumvent, said Grogan, 48, who also invested some of his own money in the company. There are no two sides about DWI (driving while intoxicated). Everyone is on the same side.