Mesa employees convicted of DUI may soon have to start each day by blowing into a tube before climbing behind the wheel of a city vehicle.
If approved, the policy would be the city’s response to new state laws requiring ignition-interlock devices on any vehicle driven by a person convicted of DUI.
The law puts municipal governments in a difficult position when it comes to allowing employees to drive the company car.
Some cities, such as Mesa, are taking a creative approach to their policies.
Tempe plans to examine each case as it comes along. Gilbert and Scottsdale are looking into how the law would affect their policies.
As of September, drivers convicted of DUI — impaired to the slightest degree by alcohol or drugs — are required to have certified ignition-interlock devices installed on every car registered to them.
The devices are slightly larger than a cell phone and wire directly into the vehicle’s ignition. They require a breath sample before the engine starts and periodically while driving.
City governments employ thousands of people who drive on the job.
For those who need a commercial driver’s license to fulfill their jobs, the policies are pretty clear: lose your license, lose your job.
It’s those who drive city vehicles with a regular license that represent the gray area.
Since 2003, 40 Mesa employees have been cited for DUI. Of the 40, nine held commercial driver’s licenses, 10 were not required to drive on the job and 21 needed at least a standard driver’s license to perform their jobs, said Lisa Angiano, a Mesa human resources specialist.
Fifteen of the 40 still work for the city, she said. Ten are required to drive.
Under a new policy waiting for approval by the city manager, employees who need to drive for the city and are convicted of DUI would be required to take a Breathalyzer test before each shift.
Municipal security officers, considered an arm of the police department, would perform the test.
The police department has about 75 portable Breathalyzer devices that test blood alcohol level in a few minutes, as opposed to the hour’s time a blood test usually takes, said Mesa Sgt. Ed Wessing.
“As long as it shows 0.000, they can go on to work,” he said.
This approach comes after several lengthy discussions on how to deal with the DUI laws, said human resources director Gary Manning.
There were a few options available, but each came with problems. The city could:
• Simply fire anyone convicted of DUI. That was thrown out, given the tough labor market and the expense of hiring and training new people.
• Install the interlock devices on its vehicles. But the units can cost $900 apiece, and the city decided it would be too expensive. Not to mention the message it would send to residents who might see the devices on a city vehicle.
• Exercise its right under the law allowing employees to drive city vehicles without an interlock device if they carry a note that essentially amounts to a permission slip. Manning said the city attorney’s office worried that the written permission would endanger the city’s liability.
“If the driver gets into an accident, it doesn’t do anything to help limit the city’s exposure,” he said.
Tempe’s current DUI policy calls for the city to work with an employee for up to 30 days, said interim human resources manager Jon O’Connor.
“Then we would look at whether driving was an essential function,” he said. “If they had to drive a city vehicle for the job, and the only way was with the device, we would look at exactly what is involved in installing it or if it’s reasonable for us to do.”
Tempe has had few issues with employees receiving DUIs. Two employees have been terminated in the past five years, and they both held commercial licenses. One was reinstated on appeal.
In Gilbert, employees are not required to report a DUI unless they need to drive on the job, said town spokesman Greg Svelund.
“If they lose their license and they cannot drive under town business, then there’s a problem,” he said. In the past year, no one has been fired for issues related to drugs or alcohol.
But the town is looking at the new law and how it will affect town employees, Svelund said.
Scottsdale is now studying the law, said city spokesman Pat Dodds. The current policy is that all employees are required to report a DUI to the city within 24 hours. If an employee is required to drive on the job, and the license is suspended for more than 30 days, then the employee could be terminated.
Stiffer penalties already are on tap for the Arizona Legislature to consider, including a “no alcohol” order for extreme DUIs that could come with twice-daily alcohol testing. Another bill would introduce mandatory community service.
Lawyer Dan Furlong, who teaches statewide DUI seminars, estimates there are between 30,000 and 40,000 DUI convictions statewide every year.
“If you assume that most of those people end up getting convicted, you’re putting 30,000 interlock devices out there on the streets a year,” he said.
Furlong predicts the devices will eventually come as standard equipment on new cars.
Already there are new ways to test for the presence of alcohol, such as a device that senses it through the skin.
“We’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the number of interlocks on the streets of Arizona,” he said.