State gets tougher on motorists with updated DUI law

By Abby Morris
Star Staff
amorris@starhq.com

   Beginning today, the state of Tennessee will crack down harder on individuals who operate motor vehicles on the road while under the influence of intoxicating beverages or drugs.
   Last year the Tennessee State Legislature passed an amendment to the Tennessee Code Annotated that lowered the legal limit of a person's blood alcohol content from ten-hundredths of one percent (0.10) to eight-hundredths of one percent (0.08). The amendment went into effect today.
   The Associated Press reported that the amendment was passed under pressure from the federal government that it would reduce the state's level of federal funding if it did not adopt the legislation.
   According to that report, states that failed to lower the limit to 0.08 by Sept. 30 of this year would lose a portion of their federal road building funds, while states that lowered the legal limit before the September deadline would share approximately $500 million worth of incentives.
   Missing the deadline would have cost Tennessee $7.8 million, or two percent, of its federal highway funds next year. The penalty would then increase each year that the state did not lower the limit.
   According to information from the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the new law is necessary.
   The organization's Web site states that in the year 2000 the number of people killed in alcohol-related crashes totaled 17,380, an average of one every half hour. These deaths constituted approximately 41 percent of the 41,945 total traffic fatalities.
   The group also reported that in 2001 in Tennessee, 1,251 people died in traffic accidents and, of those, 537 died in alcohol-related crashes.
   According to local law enforcement, the new law will aid them in making roadways in Tennessee safer. "The stronger they get on the DUI law the better it will be," said Elizabethton Police Department Ptl. Carl Burrough. "There will be a lot less accidents as far as DUI."
   Burrough stated he does not anticipate the methods that officers use to detect and apprehend possible DUI suspects will change. "As far as the methods for traffic stops it will not change anything. We will still observe the vehicles for indications that it's a DUI," he said.
   One of the more prominent changes that will result from the new law is in the number court proceedings, Burrough said. "We'll get more convictions now than we did before."
   Simply having a tougher law dealing with DUI may deter some people from driving after they have consumed alcoholic beverages, Burrough also said. "The offense itself will lower. People will be more cautious and watch what they are doing."
   A DUI conviction in the state of Tennessee can prove costly, even for a first offense, Burrough said. "If the whole scenario is put together it could cost you up to $5,000 for a first offense," he said, adding that not only is there a fine involved with a DUI conviction, there are also court costs, attorney's fees, fees for license reinstatement and SR-22 insurance for high risk drivers.
   According to the Tennessee Department of Safety, the minimum penalty for a first offense DUI conviction is a fine of $350, 48 hours in jail and a one-year suspension of the individual's driver's license.
   A second offense conviction increases the punishment to a $600 fine, 45 days in jail and two-years suspension of driving privileges.
   If an individual is convicted of a third offense, the fine increases to $1,100 with 120 days in jail and a three-year suspension of driving privileges.
   The new law also eliminates the charge of driving while impaired. Previously, if an individual was tested to have a BAC between 0.08 and 0.10 either by a breath test or a blood test, they could be charged with driving while impaired, a Class B misdemeanor, and receive a lesser penalty. The new law stipulates that all persons with a BAC of more than 0.08 will be charged for driving under the influence.
   According to the executive director of MADD Tennessee, Nancy Denning, a 170-pound person would need to consume four drinks in one hour on an empty stomach to have a BAC (Blood Alcohol Content) of 0.08.