NASHVILLE — Drivers who get behind the wheel after having too much to drink, and individuals who can’t prove they’re in the country legally, face tougher consequences in Tennessee with the start of the new year.
Up until midnight Saturday, drivers could get a second DUI conviction and still avoid having a device attached to their car that requires them to prove they’re sober before the vehicle will start.
But under a new law, first-time offenders convicted of having a blood alcohol level of at least 0.15 will be required to have ignition interlock devices installed on their vehicles.
“It’s going to enhance the awareness of what the consequences are of impaired driving,” said Mike Browning, a spokesman for the Tennessee Department of Safety.
There are currently about 600 drivers in Tennessee with the devices, according to the Safety Department. In 2008, there were 29,901 DUI arrests in the state. And in 2009, 303 people were killed in crashes where the driver had a blood alcohol level of at least 0.08.
Trooper Ehrin Ehlert is the administrator of the ignition interlock program in Tennessee. He said over the course of time he believes the new law will become more of a deterrent because having to blow into a device before your vehicle will start is not only embarrassing, but an inconvenience.
For instance, the program requires periodic tests and “the device sounds an alarm when it’s time for what’s called a rolling retest,” Ehlert said.
It’s also recorded if the driver doesn’t give a breathing sample within a certain amount of time, and the device triggers the vehicle’s horn and causes its lights to flash to alert law enforcement that the driver is in violation.
“I would definitely say that there are some social ramifications to it,” Ehlert said.
Sonya Manfred, program specialist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Tennessee, said the group supports requiring first-time offenders to install the device.
“We hope the law will increase the number of interlock ignitions on vehicles,” Manfred said. “We hope to see a decrease in the number of drunk driving fatalities.”
In July, a similar law was passed for convicted drunken drivers in four California counties, including Los Angeles.
In Tennessee, another law taking effect New Year’s Day targets illegal immigration. The measure requires jailers to report individuals who don’t have legal documentation to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Homeland Security Department.
Some jails, including the one in Nashville, had been involved with a voluntary ICE program that did the same thing. The new law puts the requirement into place in all cities and counties.
Stephen Fotopulos, executive director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said his group opposes the law because “it’s a huge unfunded mandate on local governments, with no public safety benefit.”
“It creates an unreasonable burden on local jailers to become immigration experts,” Fotopulos said.