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Drivers in Georgia should think more than just twice before hitting the road after a couple of drinks.

Georgia ranks No. 2 in the nation for strictest DUI laws, according to a recent study by the personal finance website WalletHub.com.

The study used a point system and looked at 15 key metrics for criminal penalties and preventative measures to determine the strictest and most lenient states for DUI offenses. It did not look at judges' discretion to reduce or suspend a sentence, which would reflect unreliable subjectivity.

In all 50 states, the legal limit for blood alcohol concentration is 0.08. According to the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles' website, penalties for first-time offenders include a minimum of 10 days in jail, a $300 to $1,000 fine, license suspension for up to a year and 40 hours of community service. Judges can waive the minimum sentence at their discretion, but it is not clear how often that happens.

"We're pleased to hear that we are the second most strict state in the country as far as DUI laws go," said Chad Payne, spokesman for the Dade County, Ga., Sheriff's Office.

Payne said his department sees an average of three arrests for DUI per week, and he estimated about 30 percent of the auto crashes in Dade are caused by impaired drivers. But he doesn't think DUI offenses are more common in Dade County than anywhere else.

Catoosa County Sheriff Gary Sisk echoed Payne's estimates, noting that DUI offenses are common but saying drugs are outpacing alcohol as the cause.

"It goes hand in hand with the drug epidemic, the opioid abuse and things like that," said Sisk. "People are driving under the influence of narcotics. It could be a mixture; sometimes it's alcohol and drugs, and sometimes it's just alcohol, but I think we've definitely seen an uptick in it being prescription medications."

Payne said DUI arrests are more common in summer rather than winter, since people are "doing things outside as opposed to being stuck inside," and most arrests occur at night.

"If bars in Chattanooga close around 2 in the morning, people are going home late at night around 2 or 3," Payne said.

Payne said Dade County starts early in seeking to prevent substance abuse with the Georgia Sheriffs' Association program for Choosing Healthy Activities and Methods Promoting Safety, or CHAMPS.

"It starts with fifth-graders," Payne said. "We try to get them early. We start teaching them about DUIs and stuff like that early on, trying to prevent it."

CHAMPS is similar to the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, or DARE, but it covers a broader array of subjects, from drug and alcohol abuse to gun and hunter safety.

Sobriety checkpoints also are a widely used preventative measure, but Payne said they are random and not dictated by holidays. Sisk said Catoosa operates checkpoints only to look for license or seat belt violations, but if a driver appears to be under the influence, "that would be a secondary issue that we would have to deal with."

Sisk said he thinks people are actually more conscientious around holidays.

"There are a lot more PSAs [public service announcements] nationally, especially coming up on New Year's or some of your bigger holidays like that," Sisk said. "We always try to put announcements out as well. Find a designated driver, or if you're going somewhere, go there and stay. And don't drink and drive."

Sisk said he thinks being the second-strictest state for DUI offenses is a good thing for Georgia.

"We already have enough distractions in the car, we definitely don't need to add slowed response times to all of that," he said. "There are too many stories of intoxicated people having wrecks, but the other person suffered the most injuries and/or death and the person who was intoxicated didn't."

Payne seconded Sisk's remarks.

"I've arrested a whole lot of DUIs, and being second-strictest in the country, to me, doesn't seem like a bad thing," said Payne. "Everybody makes mistakes, but I don't think our punishments for DUIs is more severe or too severe."

He added that Dade County Sheriff Ray Cross said, "If that information gets out, and it stops one person from drinking and driving and that saves a life, then that's great for us."

Payne, who also has worked as an emergency medical responder, said he's seen the aftermath of drunken drivers who "nearly kill a whole family of innocent people."

"DUI is not a victimless thing. It's people getting hurt, it's putting everybody else's life in danger on the road," Payne said.

Contact staff writer Rosana Hughes at rhughes@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6327. Follow her on Twitter @HughesRosana.

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