published Friday, December 2nd, 2011

Tennessee rates below average in combating drunken driving


by Naomi Jagoda

AT A GLANCE


In a Mothers Against Drunk Driving national ranking, five states received a perfect score of five stars, and five states received only one star for efforts to deter drunk driving.

States with five stars

• Arizona

• Illinois

• Kansas

• Nebraska

• Utah

States with one star

• Michigan

• Montana

• Pennsylvania

• Rhode Island

• South Dakota

Source: MADD

Tennessee scored below the national average and behind neighboring Georgia and Alabama in a new report evaluating drunk-driving prevention efforts.

All three states are working to strengthen drunken driving laws, with new legislative efforts expected in 2012.

“[Drunken driving] is a tremendous problem,” said Tennessee state Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge.

In 2009, there were 303 DUI fatalities in Tennessee, 331 in Georgia and 280 in Alabama, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Yet in Mothers Against Drunk Driving ratings released last month, Tennessee got two stars, out of five possible, while Georgia and Alabama each got three.

States received one star for each of five categories where they have enacted drunken driving prevention policies or otherwise had prevention measures in place. The average rating of the 50 states and Washington, D.C., was about three stars. Five states received a perfect score of five stars, and five states received only one star.

The three states in the greater Chattanooga area all received stars for conducting sobriety checkpoints and for having enhanced penalties in DUI cases involving child endangerment.

Georgia and Alabama also got stars for using administrative license revocation — a system that allows police officers to immediately confiscate the licenses of motorists who are charged with a drunken driving-related crime.

But none of the three made the grade in the remaining two categories. One requires ignition interlocks — devices that can prevent vehicles from being driven by drunken drivers — for all offenders.

The other category relates to refusing blood-alcohol content testing. States can receive this star if their refusal rates are 10 percent or lower or they participate in no-refusal events where officers can require suspects to get their blood-alcohol content tested.

LEGISLATIVE STEPS IN TENNESSEE

Starting Jan. 1, a new law will allow police officers in Tennessee to test the blood-alcohol content of suspects in some drunken driving-related crimes even if the suspects refuse. Officers must have probable cause and the suspects must have been involved in an accident that killed or injured another, had a previous conviction or had a passenger under age 16.

State legislators also are interested in requiring all first offenders with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 or higher — rather than 0.15 or higher — to have ignition interlocks following a conviction. Tennessee already requires interlocks for repeat offenders.

Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, said that in the coming session, he will reintroduce an amendment to expand the use of interlocks to the first offense. But he doesn’t expect the amendment to pass — the existing interlock program is not paying for itself, he said, because judges aren’t applying the interlock technology enough.

A bill that would create administrative license revocation in Tennessee was introduced in February but never got passed because of concerns about start-up costs. McNally, who introduced the bill, said he still plans to pursue legislation on the topic.

Sonya Manfred, program specialist at MADD’s Tennessee office, thinks groups are making good efforts to reduce alcohol-related crashes.

“Tennessee is working very hard to prevent death and injury as a result of drunk driving,” Manfred said. “It’s a very real possibility that in the next five years, MADD Tennessee could see the state receive five stars.”

EFFORTS IN GEORGIA

Because a judge must issue a warrant to force a suspect to have a blood-alcohol test, no-refusal initiatives are handled by cities and counties rather than on a state level, said Barry Martin, MADD Georgia executive director.

Martin hopes that grass-roots efforts will create dedicated no-refusal weekends during DUI stops.

A bill introduced in the state Senate last session would have added first offenders to the interlock requirement. The bill got through the Senate’s special judiciary committee but did not make it to a floor vote, Martin said.

He added that there are plans to put another bill before the legislature in the upcoming session.

EFFORTS IN ALABAMA

Alabama, like Georgia, does not need to pass new laws to have no-refusal events. No-refusal periods just need to be coordinated among organizations, said Frank Harris, MADD national legislative affairs manager.

Earlier this year, Alabama became the last state to pass an ignition interlock law. It applies to repeat offenders and first-time convicted drunken drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.15 or higher, Harris said.

“That’s a good start,” Harris said.

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