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Remarks before the DUI Summer Study Committee, Tennessee House Of Representatives, Nashville, Tennessee
Steven R. Chealander
Tennessee House Of Representatives, DUI Summer Study Committee, Nashville, Tennessee

Good morning Chairman Coleman and members of the DUI Study Committee.  It is my pleasure to be here in Nashville and talk about administrative license revocation and the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations for addressing hard core drinking drivers.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and make safety recommendations to prevent their recurrence.  The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product.  The Safety Board cannot mandate implementation of these recommendations.  However, in our 40-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.  I have been privileged to serve as one of the Presidentially-appointed members of the Safety Board since January of this year.

The Alcohol-Highway Safety Problem

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that motor vehicle crashes are responsible for more deaths than crashes in all other transportation modes combined.  More than 90 percent of all transportation related deaths each year result from highway crashes.  Each year, about 40 percent of highway deaths nationwide are alcohol-related.  Even though the total number of highway deaths declined by two percent in 2006, the number of alcohol-related fatalities increased slightly, to more than 17,600.  Further, the number of alcohol-related fatalities remains substantially higher than in 1999, when approximately 15,800 people died in alcohol-related crashes. 

Here in Tennessee, total highway fatalities increased to 1,287 in 2006, and the number of alcohol-related deaths increased by 7.6 percent, to 509.  That’s almost ten people dying in crashes involving alcohol on Tennessee streets and roads every week!

The emotional toll on families is staggering, but impaired driving also has a financial impact.  According to calculations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the lifetime cost to society for each fatality is over $977,000; alcohol-related crashes cost society billions of dollars.  While the affected individual covers some of these costs, overall, NHTSA estimates that those not directly involved in crashes pay for nearly three-quarters of all crash costs, primarily through insurance premiums, taxes, and travel delay.  Clearly, much needs to be done to reduce this ongoing tragedy.

Hard Core Drinking Drivers

The Safety Board is particularly concerned with hard core drinking drivers, who are involved in about 54 percent of alcohol-related fatalities.  The Board defines hard core drinking drivers as individuals who drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.15 percent or greater, or who are arrested for driving while intoxicated within 10 years of a prior driving while impaired (DWI) arrest.  From 1983 through 2005, more than 200,000 people died in crashes involving hard core drinking drivers.  Most experts agree that impaired drivers persist in their behavior because these drivers believe that they will not be caught and/or convicted.  That perception is based on reality.  NHTSA estimates that on average, an individual makes about 1,000 drinking driving trips before being arrested.

In 1984, the Safety Board completed a safety study that included recommendations to reduce the problem of repeat DWI offenders.  Since those recommendations were issued, all States have made efforts to address the alcohol-related highway safety problem, making considerable progress in detecting, arresting, and adjudicating drinking drivers.  However, the measures taken and the degree of implementation of the Safety Board’s 1984 recommendations by States and localities have not been uniform, and alcohol-related crashes continue to claim thousands of lives. 

In light of the thousands of deaths still resulting from these crashes, the Safety Board focused on hard core drinking drivers in 2000.  In that report, the Board examined a variety of countermeasures used by the States to identify which of these actions have been effective, and recommended a model program (attached) to reduce hard core drinking driving.  Tennessee has adopted only 5 of the program’s 11 elements.  Among the more important elements lacking are:

  • High BAC Sanctions at 0.15 Percent – Currently, Tennessee law imposes increased imprisonment for drivers with a BAC greater than 0.20 percent.  However, drivers with a BAC, 0.15 percent or greater, require strong intervention similar to that ordinarily prescribed for repeat offenders.  Those who reach this high BAC level have consumed large amounts of alcohol, much more than is generally considered to be social or responsible drinking. 
  • Vehicle Sanctions – Although Tennessee has a very limited ignition interlock program, it by no means applies to all DWI offenders.  Further, other vehicle sanctions such as license plate confiscation, vehicle immobilization and vehicle impoundment are not authorized.  These sanctions both substantially decrease the opportunity for hard core drinking drivers to operate vehicles illegally and deter others from even considering driving impaired or driving with a suspended license.
  • Zero Tolerance for Repeat Offenders – As a condition of diversion or probation, courts often will order DWI offenders to remain sober, whether or not the offender is driving, for a specified period of time.  In recent years, some States have enacted laws that set a lower per se BAC level for convicted DWI offenders.  Such a provision forces DWI offenders to demonstrate that they can operate a vehicle legally and separate their drinking from their driving.  The provision is also easily enforceable; the police officer need only identify a prior DWI conviction, something generally listed in motor vehicle records, as opposed to a court-ordered condition.  Recent research has shown that Maine’s law setting the level at zero was an important element in reducing impaired driving among prior offenders.

The problem of hard core drinking drivers is complex; no single countermeasure by itself appears to reduce recidivism and crashes sufficiently.  We need a comprehensive system of prevention, apprehension, sanction, and treatment to reduce the crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by these drivers.  Thus, we applaud the Governor’s DWI Task Force for its efforts and we hope that you will build upon its work by approving a strong series of measures to address this critical problem.

Administrative License Revocation

The single most important measure Tennessee can take to address hard core drinking drivers is enactment of administrative license revocation (ALR).

It has been more than 20 years since the Safety Board first recommended that States enact administrative license revocation, or ALR.  Our rationale then was the same as it is now; ALR is both a general and specific deterrent for impaired driving, meaning that it encourages the general public not to get behind the wheel after drinking and encourages specific DWI offenders not to repeat their criminal behavior.  Without ALR, an offender can get back on the road as soon as he or she is sober enough to drive.  Often times, an offender is arrested a second time for DWI before the first case goes to trial.

In addition, drivers arrested for DWI may wait months, if not years, before facing any consequences for their behavior.  Ultimately, they may plea to a non-alcohol-related offense, such as reckless driving, or they may not actually receive a license suspension even when convicted of impaired driving.  All of these facts help reinforce the mistaken belief that it is OK to drink and drive or that even if it isn’t, nothing will be done about it.

ALR provides swift, certain, consistent consequences for engaging in high-risk behavior.  It acknowledges the seriousness of the alleged crime by immediately removing the impaired driver from the driving population and thereby removing the substantial risk that the driver poses to hundreds, if not thousands, of other people on the roads.  And it is effective!

ALR gives a law enforcement officer the authority, on behalf of Tennessee’s licensing agency, to confiscate the license of any driver who either fails or refuses to take a chemical breath test.  The drunk driver is off the road with no dilatory tactics, no mitigating circumstances, no plea-bargaining and no pre-trial diversion.  The basis for allowing ALR is that the danger posed by an alleged impaired driver is greater than that driver’s interest in keeping a license until conviction for impaired driving.

A truly effective ALR program authorizes the officer to confiscate the license on the spot, immediately following the breath test.  The driver then receives a temporary license that is valid for a short, specified period of time.  During that time, he or she may seek an administrative hearing – a process that is independent of any criminal proceedings.  That hearing addresses a single issue:  Did the driver fail or refuse to take a breath test?  If the answer is yes, the license remains suspended.

The effectiveness of ALR has been demonstrated repeatedly.  In a 1999 study sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), researchers found that the number of drivers who had a BAC at or above 0.10 percent and who were involved in fatal crashes decreased by almost 13 percent after ALR was implemented.  There was almost a 19 percent decline among drivers who had a positive BAC below 0.10 percent and who were involved in fatal crashes.  An earlier study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, researchers found that the rate of recidivism in North Dakota declined by 40 percent after North Dakota enacted ALR.  I have attached a list of studies showing ALR’s effectiveness to my statement.

Opponents of ALR have argued that it is unconstitutional – that it denies the DWI offender due process.  However, no State supreme court has declared ALR unconstitutional.  To the contrary, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that revocation of a license, prior to an administrative hearing, is not a violation of due process as long as there are provisions for a swift post-suspension hearing.

A common concern with ALR is that it negatively affects a person’s ability to maintain employment.  However, studies have shown this not to be the case.  A 1987 examination of Mississippi’s system found no significant difference between employment of DWI offenders who lost their licenses and employment of offenders who kept their licenses.  In 1996, researchers compared 3 States using ALR with Pennsylvania, which does not have ALR.  They found no significant loss of income when comparing first and multiple offenders in ALR States compared with those in Pennsylvania.  The percent of offenders still working the month after the arrest was identical in the ALR States and Pennsylvania to those working before the arrest.

Another objection to ALR has been the concern that a suspended license will inhibit that person’s ability to maintain a positive and productive life.  The concern that the loss of driving privileges, especially in rural areas, would result in the loss of a job, prompted studies in New Mexico, Mississippi, and Delaware to determine whether the concern is justified.  In all three States, the problem was minimal.  For example, in Delaware, a rural State with little public transit, only 1.2 percent of those whose licenses were revoked lost their jobs.  Loss of employment resulting from the loss of a driver’s license is unusual.

The benefits of ALR are well recognized throughout the nation.  It was recommended by the Surgeon General’s 1988 workshop on drunk driving.  ALR has been one of the elements in qualifying for Federal grants since 1988, and remains one of eight elements needed to qualify for alcohol highway safety incentive grants under the current Federal highway funding law.

Despite the fact that 40 States and the District of Columbia had ALR in 2000, the Safety Board still included ALR as one of the eleven core elements of the model program to address hard core drinking driving (attached) it recommended in that year.

ALR works because it specifically deters those drivers who are caught drinking and driving from doing it again.  And, it generally deters those who have not been caught, because they are afraid of losing their driving privileges.  ALR is still one of the most effective measures to reduce alcohol-related fatalities because it works with all offenders.


Over the last decade, more than 61 percent of alcohol-related fatalities in Tennessee involved a hard core drinking driver, which is higher than the national average of 56 percent.  Administrative license revocation has been proven to reduce impaired driving crashes, injuries, and fatalities.  It played a major role in reducing alcohol-related fatalities nationwide from over 28,000 per year in 1980 to less than 18,000 in 2006.  Tennessee needs to implement administrative license revocation, along with the other measures included in the Safety Board’s model program for dealing with hard core drinking drivers.  As evidence of the importance of ALR and the other model program elements, the Board has placed the hard core drinking driving recommendation on its “Most Wanted” list of safety recommendations.  Indeed, ALR has been on the Board’s Most Wanted list since the list’s inception in 1990.

Thank you again for allowing the Safety Board to testify about this important problem.  We look forward to working with you on this critical legislation, and I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.