Tennessee's DUI Downturn

Current efforts to reduce drunk driving may seem draconian. But they also seem to be working.

Drunk driving isn't as common as it used to be. That much is clear.

Alcohol-related traffic deaths in Tennessee peaked at 686 in 1986; today, the toll is barely more than half that. Especially dramatic is the sharp decline in alcohol-related deaths involving victims under 21. According to statistics compiled by the anti-drunk-driving Century Council, that rate has plummeted by 67.4 percent—more than two-thirds—in the last 10 years. Something's working.

In the last 25 years, nearly everything about drunk driving has changed. The definition of drunk driving broadened when Tennessee, like all states, lowered the blood-alcohol standard to 0.08 percent. Mandatory checkpoints, once rare, are now routine. Punishments are much more severe, always requiring jail time. The days when an officer might ask, "Think you can make it home and sleep it off?" live on only in black-and-white cop shows. Even the slightly drunk are arrested and do time—at least 48 hours for a first offense. They also must pay big fines and take mandatory education courses. A fourth offense is a felony requiring a full year in jail. It's a headache worse than any hangover.

And young people, drivers under 21 who may be accident-prone anyway, are theoretically having more difficulty finding alcohol because of stricter compliance guidelines among retailers. Teenagers still drink, but John Gill, special counsel to the District Attorney General, thinks maybe a little less than they used to, especially in terms of binge drinking. "It actually helps," he says of stricter checking, "and pretty surely saves some lives."

One factor is that drunk driving is a greater social taboo than it used to be. Designating a sober driver, a practice that struck one generation as naive, may have become the common practice of significant portions of a later generation. Kathy Brown, of the Knox County Health Department, works with high school students on alcohol-education programs, and she says she's seen real evidence of teenagers designating sober drivers,—not universally, but moreso than in previous generations.

Karen Pershing, executive director of the Metropolitan Drug Commission, says the culture, the "social norm," has changed. She emphasizes that groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving have had a major effect on behavior, partly through pushing national legislation, like bringing down the legal blood-alcohol content to 0.08 percent from the arbitrary 0.1, where it had dwelled for decades.

"People are impaired before they know they're impaired," Pershing says. But MADD also had an effect on the culture, she says, just through telling personal stories: "How many people have been killed, and how senseless and reckless those deaths were." Even the liquor industry has gotten in on the act, offering solemn warnings about responsible drinking.

"With multiple strategies, it's hard to pinpoint what's most effective," Pershing says.

Local successes reflect a national story. Statistics suggest that in terms of drunk-driving fatalities, Tennessee is exactly in step with much-improved national norms. (There's a good deal of variation, state to state, even within the region. According to 2009 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, Tennessee's drunk-driving death rate, 22 percent of fatal accidents overall, compares well with South Carolina's, which is 31, and one of the highest rates in the country; but Kentucky's death rate, 17 percent, is a good deal lower than ours.)

In the face of MADD's statistics and personal stories and the ostensibly saved lives, it's hard to argue that current laws are too harsh. One thing that dependably perplexes newcomers, upon moving to Tennessee, is the fastidious checking of identification at most bars and groceries. Even gray-haired customers, familiar patrons who were checked last week, may get checked again—to be certain they were born before 1990.

An extreme example occurred a couple of years ago during a visit of British poet Blake Morrison. A gray-haired gentleman approaching 60, he was visiting Knoxville working on a BBC radio project. Morrison's autobiographical novel had been made into a motion picture; the role of Morrison himself had been played by (50ish) actor Colin Firth.

Here, Morrison thought he'd try the local pub. But when the author tried to buy a pint at a downtown bar, he lacked any identification bartenders had been trained to accept. He was turned down flat.

One state law, passed in 2006, does require carding, but only for beer for off-premises consumption—that's why grocery stores seem especially strict. A 2008 amendment to the law provides an exception for customers who appear to be over 50. Recent Knoxville city codes require universal carding for off-premises beer purchases, giving the over-50 a break only in that they're not required to show a picture ID.

As far as bars and restaurants and liquor stores, though, "Some card everyone, some card everyone who appears to be under 30," Pershing says, adding that in some cases unusual practices, like universal carding, are part of a remediation plan. She points to a series of studies beginning in the 1990s showing that some underage purchasers were able to buy alcohol as much as 50 percent of the time. "Compliance checks," as the practice is known, show some proof of effectiveness, she says, and encourage retailers to "police themselves." Shifts in legal standards for liability, concerning responsibility for consequences of selling to a minor, put more legal burden on retailers than in the past. Pershing mentions charges against a now-defunct Kingston Pike night spot after a sale to a minor later involved in a fatal accident; it was a wake-up call for many businesses.

"As a business, you have to set your own policy," she says. It seems to be working, at least in terms of making things tougher on the underage drinker. Recent figures based on confidential high-school questionnaires suggest that Knox County teenagers rarely buy alcohol from retailers. Some get booze anyway, mainly thanks to adult acquaintances—but Pershing believes it's less than would have if retailers weren't so tough with the carding.

The drunk driver is hardly an endangered species. In 2008, 531 Knox County drivers drank and wrecked their cars. Pershing is interested in some further national efforts, like improvements in interlock devices that bar drunk drivers from driving. Concerning the number of drivers cited for driving without valid licenses, she says, "Revoking licenses doesn't seem to work."

But MDC is now more concerned about drugged driving, especially by drivers on prescription drugs, like painkillers. Alcohol conveniently comes with both an odor and measurable breath component. There's no breathalyzer for barbituates.

"It's probably a little ways off," she says. "Now it involves a phlebotomy. You have to draw blood, and then wait for it to come back from the lab."

Despite the multiplicity of strategies, few involve the driving side of the equation. Most bars and restaurants that serve alcoholic drinks in the greater Knoxville area are accessible only by car. Public transportation might seem a solution for some, but KAT's commuter-centric bus schedule begins paring back around happy hour. The final buses leave downtown at 11:15, just as some nightclub shows are getting started.

Today, a few hundred downtown patrons can walk home, but they're a tiny minority. In some American cities, like Pittsburgh, the corner bar is a long-standing tradition. But in Knoxville, as in many American cities, zoning effectively scuttles most proposals for neighborhood bars.

An Irish graduate student remarked that she liked a certain new Irish-themed bar. She commented that it even seemed Irish, except for one thing—it isn't within walking distance of residences, or of public transportation. "In America, if you drink you have to drink and drive," she said. "That's not Irish at all. It's mad!"