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Feds take issue with Tennessee's new underage drunk driving law

Does the federal government support Tennessee lawmakers’ attempts to get tougher on underage drunk drivers? One might assume that answer to be yes, but a new state law could result in a loss of $60 million in federal road funding.

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials, the projected loss would comprise around 8 percent of Tennessee’s annual funding from federal transportation sources. The problem has to do with the maximum blood alcohol content levels permitted under the new law for drivers under the age of 21.

Specifically, Tennessee’s new DUI law would make it the only state in violation of the federal underage drinking standard. Federal law sets the BAC level for underage drinkers at .02 percent. That law is referred to as the federal zero-tolerance standard. The new state law would raise the BAC level for 18- to 20-year drivers to .08 percent.

Is this a distinction without a difference? After all, it is still illegal in Tennessee for anyone under 21 years of age to consume or even possess any amount of alcohol. The new BAC level might have more to do with penalties. Yet federal authorities have stated that they view the law as making Tennessee’s roads more dangerous for everyone.

State lawmakers may have thought they were making a commitment to greater road safety. For example, the state law imposes harsher penalties on underage drinkers, essentially giving them the same penalties as drivers 21 years of age and older who are convicted of DUIs. Those penalties include mandatory 48-hour jailing, fines up to $1,500 and a potential driver’s license suspension for up to one year.

Both state and federal lawmakers would probably agree that far too many injuries are caused by drunk drivers every year, and tough penalties targeted at drivers of all ages may help to reduce the number of drunk driving crashes. Yet to avoid the loss of road funds, it may well be that Tennessee lawmakers will have to convene a special session and amend their new law.

Source: Chattanooga Times Free Press, “Tennessee seeks to avert $60 million loss of federal road fund over new DUI law,” Andy Sher, Aug. 30, 2016

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