House approves legislation lowering DUI limit to .08

By Thomas Wilson

   The Tennessee House of Representatives approved legislation Tuesday lowering the state's legal DUI limit to .08 (BAC) blood alcohol content from the previous level of .10.
   The bill would take effect on July 1, 2003, and will also require courts to place ignition interlock devices on the cars of repeat DUI offenders.
   "We certainly hope that it will have an impact, particularly when it comes to habitual drunk drivers," said Beth Tucker Womack, public information officer with the Department of Safety.
   "When requiring the interlock device to be installed for the repeat DUI offender, it will certainly help in those cases."
   A repeat DUI offender would have the interlock device installed to his or her vehicle for six months after the license revocation period, according to the legislation.
   The interlock device is attached to the steering wheel and allows use of the vehicle after the driver performs a breathalyzer test. If alcohol is detected, the steering wheel would remain locked.
   "As of Oct. 1 of this year, a person would be classified as a repeat offender who had a conviction for DUI in the past five years," said Tucker Womack.
   A repeat offender would have to pay for installation of the interlock device as part of their court sentence, said Womack.
   "We don't have them just lying around to install on cars. That would be their responsibility to pay for them," she said.
   If convicted of a DUI, a driver typically faces 48 hours in jail, a $350 fine, revocation of his or her driver's license for one year plus court costs.
   The bill would impose a $100 drug addiction treatment fee to the existing fine for each offense.
   Previously, drivers whose blood alcohol level was .08 were charged with driving while impaired (DWI) -- a lesser offense resulting in a $500 fine and court costs.
   The new bill if signed into law would effectively delete the existing DWI offense, Womack said.
   The House bill was returned to the Senate for approval of an amendment to the bill. If approved, the bill would then go to the governor's desk to be signed into law.
   Passage of the bill also comes with an economic incentive.
   The state stands to lose several millions of federal highway funds if the .08 standard was not approved, according to Rep. Ralph Cole, R-Elizabethton.
   The Carter County Sheriff's Department reported making 150 DUI arrests in 2000, 154 arrests last year and 62 arrests through the first six months of 2002.
   The Elizabethton Police Department reported 133 DUI arrests were made during 2001.
   According to data from the Tennessee Department of Safety, 39 percent of the more than 8,600 automobile fatalities that occurred on state highways between 1993 and 1999 were alcohol-related.
   Alcohol-related crashes and fatalities included accidents involving a driver or a non-occupant with a positive blood alcohol result or where the investigating officer reported alcohol involvement.
   "Obviously, it's not going to get all the drunk drivers off the road," said Womack of the lowered DUI limit bill, "but it does go a long way."