The head of a state House subcommittee that handles drunken driving legislation said Tuesday that lowering the legal standard for DUI to 0.05 percent blood alcohol content is probably at least three years away in Tennessee.
Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, and other legislators attending a Mothers Against Drunk Driving news conference said next year’s legislative priority in the area likely will be lowering the blood alcohol standard — perhaps to zero — for those who have taken prescription medications.
“To have success in the Legislature, we need to do things incrementally,” said Shipley, responding to a question.
The .05 standard was recommended recently by the National Transportation Safety Board. State Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby, has said he intends to propose legislation next year setting that standard. Currently, Tennessee and most other states set 0.08 blood alcohol content as the level that creates a legal presumption of drunken driving.
Shipley said the lower level was “an achievable goal” but speculated it might be “2016 or so” before passage was possible. One consideration, he said, is the cost of jailing offenders convicted at between .05 percent and .08 percent and requiring them to get ignition interlock devices installed on their cars.
The MADD news conference was called to promote a bill approved earlier this year that requires first offenders to get interlock devices, which require a vehicle operator to take an alcohol breath test before the vehicle will start. Tennessee is the 18th state to pass such legislation, with the total number of people now protected from repeat drunk driving offenders increases to greater than 112 million, according to MADD.
The new law requires an in-vehicle camera with the installation of every ignition interlock device. A photo is snapped each time the breathalyzer is activated.
The intent, according to MADD, is to discourage someone blowing on behalf of a drunken driver, which will further support efforts to eliminate drunk driving in Tennessee. Beginning July 1, when the new law goes into effect, first time drunk driving offenders will be required to use an interlock device for a period of six months as a condition of a restricted license.
State Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mount Juliet, sponsored the bill in the Senate.
The new law also sets up a fund to pay for the devices for drivers who are indigent — with part of the fines paid for by others — and Shipley said that fund could “go bankrupt” with a .05 standard.
Tennessee MADD President Jan Withers said the organization is not pushing the .05 standard now, focusing instead on “saving lives right now” with high visibility enforcement of laws on the books including the new ignition interlock statute. MADD also supports efforts to advance technology that would eventually be built into all vehicles to block operation by intoxicated persons.
Rep. William Lamberth, R-Cottontown, pointed out the ignition interlock effectively imposes a “zero-point-zero” standard for offenders required to use one. He said driving after taking prescription drugs is a growing problem, especially since the impairing effects of alcohol are greatly enhanced with some medication.