By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper on Friday criticized Tennessee Republicans for changes to the state’s underage drunken driving law that could lead to a loss of $60 million in federal highway funding.
Under the new law, which took effect on July 1, the allowable blood alcohol content for 18- to 20-year-old drivers was raised to 0.08 percent, but offenders now face the same level penalties as adult drivers convicted of drunken driving.
Federal guidelines suggest a strict 0.02 percent allowable blood alcohol content for drivers under the legal drinking age. The new Tennessee law splits this group into two: 16- and 17-year-olds are still subject to the 0.02 limit, while those 18-20 now have a higher allowable limit, but with the tougher punishments.
Cooper said the change runs afoul of federal standards for underage drivers, meaning that the state could stand to lose 8 percent of its federal highway funding, or $60 million per year.
“This must be a mistake,” Cooper said. “No one wants more drunk drivers on the road. State leaders should act immediately and comply with a zero tolerance policy.”
State Rep. William Lamberth, a former Sumner County prosecutor and the bill’s main sponsor, says the law is aimed at cracking down on drunken driving among young adults. It keeps the 0.02 percent standards for drivers through age 17.
Lamberth said that under the previous driving-while-impaired law for people under the age of 21, the penalties involved the loss of a license for a year and a $250 fine. The conviction could later be expunged and there were no enhanced penalties for repeat offenders, he said.
The new law carries the same penalties as driving under the influence for adults that also include 48 hours in jail, one year of probation and a ban on expunging the crime from the record.
“There’s a huge jump in penalties,” Lamberth said. “It was good policy, and that it will save lives. But it if it is against federal, then it’s obviously something we can’t afford.”
Lamberth said lawmakers were not warned that the change could run afoul of the federal government standards, and that most Democrats joined with Republicans in passing the bill 91-2 in the House and 30-0 in the Senate. Republican Gov. Bill Haslam signed the bill into law in April.
Lamberth said it’s “not acceptable” to forgo the federal road funding to keep the law in place, but said he’s working with federal and state officials to try to persuade the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to allow lawmakers to address the issue when they come back into session in January before imposing any penalty on state funding.
“I would hope they would allow us to review this session and make a determination at that time one whether to repeal or change this to comply with their guidelines,” he said.
Note: A copy of the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s letter responding to the federal funding threat is available by clicking on this link: TDOTletter