DALLAS – Tennessee officials hope to avoid the loss of $60 million of federal highway funding on Oct. 1 after an attempt to strengthen the state's law on underage driving under the influence backfired.
State Attorney General Herbert Slatery and Tennessee's entire 11-member congressional delegation sent separate letters last week to Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx seeking to keep the federal funds flowing until lawmakers can fix the problem when the General Assembly's 2017 session convenes in January.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said the revised Tennessee DUI law no longer meets the national requirement that motorists younger than 21 face state charges of driving while impaired if they have a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.02% or more.
Lawmakers amended the Tennessee law to keep the lower threshold for drivers under 18, but set a BAC of 0.8% for drivers between 18 and 20. The 0.8% limit applies to all drivers over 21.
Failure to comply with the 0.02% standard will result in an 8% cut in federal highway funding, NHTSA said.
Tennessee's new DUI law does not include a 0.02% BAC limit for drivers younger than 21, Slatery conceded. However, he contended that the state would continue to enforce laws that make it illegal for anyone under 21 to possess or consume alcohol.
"Accordingly, Tennessee meets the requirements and is committed to imposing its zero tolerance laws," he said. "The state stands ready to submit a new certificate so that its funding is not diminished."
Tennessee had consistently met the federal requirement that states set a limit of under 0.2% BAC before the DUI law was changed, said NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas.
About a third of all road deaths in the U.S. are related to drunk driving, many of them involving underage drinking, he said.
"The new law raising the allowable BAC for 18 to 20 year-old drivers above the federal limit makes the roads more dangerous for everyone and does not comply with the federal zero tolerance law," Thomas said. "If Tennessee is determined to be out of compliance on Oct. 1, the state will forfeit approximately $60 million in federal highway funds."
Tennessee is currently the only state not in compliance with the 0.02% BAC requirement, according to Thomas.
The congressional delegation said in their letter to Foxx that the new DUI law was an effort to curb underage impaired drivers.
"Based upon our review of both the state and federal laws and the purpose behind both laws, it seems that both the state of Tennessee and the federal government have the same objective of penalizing impaired driving and that the common sense thing to do is to resolve this matter promptly," they said. "We hope you will work with Tennessee to find a solution that will allow our state to retain desperately needed highway funds."
The DUI measure passed on the House with a 91-2 vote and was adopted unanimously by the 30-member Senate. It was signed into law in April.
Rep. William Lamberth, the chief sponsor of the DUI law, said no objections were raised to it until the FHWSA notification of non-compliance in mid-August.
"Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, and no one mentioned this during the entire two years this bill was pending, apparently it runs afoul to a federal regulation that we were unaware of," said Lambeth.
Democrats in the General Assembly said the bill slipped through because of a rushed 2016 legislative session with a crowded calendar, but Lambeth disputed that contention.
"This bill was filed 14 months prior to its passage in April of this year. It traveled through five House committees over those 14 months, and was approved six times by an overwhelming bipartisan vote," he said.