Members of Tennessee’s Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter were on Capitol Hill Tuesday to celebrate a new law that greatly expands the use of ignition interlock devices in the state.
The legislation, House Bill 353, is set to go into effect on July 1 and will make Tennessee the 18th state in the U.S. to require anyone convicted of a drunk-driving offense with a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent or higher to use an interlock ignition system in their vehicle. Once installed, the breathalyzer system confirms the driver’s blood-alcohol is below the legal limit before allowing operation of the vehicle.
Jan Withers, national president of MADD, was also on hand at a Legislative Plaza press event Tuesday to celebrate the new law. “Thanks to the work here in Tennessee, fewer families will have to find out that someone they love has died in a drunk driving crash,” she said.
“This legislation that was just signed into law is a key part of the [the] solution,” Withers continued. “Anyone who violates the public trust and drives drunk, after 30 years of prevention and education in this country, has earned the right for an alcohol ignition interlock device to be installed on their vehicle.”
The MADD representatives were joined by the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, and Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport, who guided the legislation to unanimous approval in both chambers earlier this spring.
Beavers and Shipley, who chairs the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee where the bill originated, joined in praising both their colleagues in the General Assembly and the lobbying work of MADD.
“It was a remarkable journey that we fought really good fights over in the House and the Senate,” Shipley said. “We should be proud of these members, Democrat and Republican alike. It’s quite an accomplishment for our state.”
“And I have nothing but praise for MADD. Y’all have been awesome,” Shipley continued.
But while the sense of accomplishment at the Capitol was effusive, more skeptical voices in the legal community worry about the efficacy of ignition interlock. Furthermore, the increased focus on the devices puts an unfair burden on lower-income offenders because of the hefty cost of such systems, say some.
Lee Martin, a Nashville defense attorney who specializes in DUI cases, told TNReport he believes the new law will merely help “keep the honest people honest.”
“If someone wants to drink and drive badly enough, they’re going to do it,” he said. “People drive all the time without drivers’ licenses. People are still going to be able to drink and drive if that’s what they want to do.”
Martin argued that coming out as tough on DUI’s is “a very easy proposition for politicians,” who in turn run the risk of oversimplifying the issue.
“Most of your DUI people are first-time offenders — they’re going to be in trouble one time in their life, they’re going to learn their lesson and they’re going to be finished with the court. That’s your typical DUI offender and they’re really just making it more burdensome folks who just can’t afford it,” Martin said.
“I think there probably are some positive aspects to the interlock device, but it’s not going to cure the problem,” he added.
Discussion on drunk driving appears likely to resurface in the coming legislative session given recent federal recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board that encourages states to consider lowering blood-alcohol limits from .08 to .05 percent.
According to a report from WKRN-TV in Nashville, at least two state lawmakers, Rep. Jeremy Faison, R-Cosby and Rep. Tim Wirgau, R-Buchanan, have said they would support legislation, bringing Tennessee in line with the NTSB’s recommendations.
However, none of the lawmakers present Tuesday, nor any representatives from MADD, offered definitive support for lowering the legal blood-alcohol limit in Tennessee.
Rep. Shipley told reporters that he’d consider a move to further lower legal BAC if it were phased in over several years to address what he sees as possible financial and logistical hurdles in implementation.
Jan Withers, the MADD National President, was unwilling to give an opinion, instead emphasizing the organization’s “laser-beam focus” on interlock systems, which she contends is the way to “save the most lives right now.