Just in time for tipsy New Year’s revelers who made the mistake of getting behind the wheel, a state law takes effect Saturday mandating ignition interlocks for the worst drunken drivers.
The new law requires interlock devices, which force a motorist to blow into a tube before the car’s ignition will work, for all offenders who are convicted of driving with a blood alcohol content of .15 or higher. That’s nearly twice the legal driving limit of .08.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving wanted to mandate interlocks for all first-time offenders, but the legislature refused to enact a bill to do that in the last session and adopted the weaker version unanimously.
“Our legislators firmly believe that it’s a wonderful first step to get us where we need to be. So we just had to go with that,” said Laura Dial, Tennessee MADD director. “It’s hard for me to really understand why” lawmakers opposed the tougher law.
The sponsors, Republicans Rep. Tony Shipley of Kingsport and Sen. Mae Beavers of Mount Juliet, said their law will save lives. But in the eight states where similar laws have been enacted, there have been no fewer drunken driving deaths, Dial said.
Tougher laws are in force in New Mexico and Arizona. In those states, which mandate interlocks for all offenders, deaths have dropped 30 percent, Dial said.
“That’s just amazing,” she said. “In Tennessee, that means we could possibly save 100 lives each year.”
In 2009, the last year for which the numbers are available, 303 people were killed in Tennessee in highway accidents involving drunken drivers. Twenty-one percent of those arrested in Tennessee for DUI between 2002 and 2007 were arrested again.
Under the new law, offenders will have to pay an increased fine to cover the cost of installing interlocks. Part of that money goes to a fund to pay for indigent offenders.
Also under the new law, someone convicted of DUI with a minor in the vehicle and those drivers who refuse to take a breath test or blood test at the time of the DUI arrest are required to have an interlock installed in their vehicles.