DUI special session deemed a ‘step backward’

By Eric Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration is looking to turn back the clock on an underage drunken driving law that threatened to cost Tennessee $60 million in federal road money.

The law that went into effect in July raised the penalties for driving under the influence by 18- through 20-year-olds. But the change ran afoul of federal zero-tolerance standards for underage drivers by raising the maximum allowable blood alcohol content from 0.02 percent to 0.08 percent.

According to an advance version of legislation the Haslam administration plans to file during a special session that starts next week, the state would eliminate nearly all of the provisions of the new law, returning the 0.02 percent rule and the more lenient penalties for all drivers beneath the legal drinking age.

“From a public policy standpoint, this is obviously a step backward,” said Republican Rep. William Lamberth of Gallatin, the lead sponsor of the original legislation. “But it is a step that will put us in compliance with federal regulation and ensure that that $60 million comes to Tennessee.”

Lamberth’s legislation was aimed at bringing drunken driving laws into line for all adults over age 18.

Previously, people aged 18 to 20 convicted of driving while intoxicated faced 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.

The new law imposed the same penalties as those faced by drivers 21 and older, including 48 hours in jail, one year of probation, a ban on expunging the crime from the record and mounting penalties for subsequent convictions.

Those tougher penalties will be walked back in Haslam’s legislation. Lamberth said he understands the need to preserve the highway funding but called the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s position frustrating.

“It doesn’t seem like they even care about deterring criminal activity as long as we have the 0.02 on the books,” Lamberth said.

The Haslam administration still insists that the state had a “valid claim” that Tennessee should have still met federal zero-tolerance standards because of unrelated laws making it illegal for people under the drinking age to possess or consume any alcohol. But those arguments failed to preserve the highway funding.

The special session begins Monday and runs at least through Wednesday.