Well, their intention was good, but they went about it all wrong. Lawmakers wanted to increase the penalties for drunk drivers aged 18-20.
The reasoning was straightforward. At 18, one is considered an adult even though they must be 21 to buy alcohol. The legal limit was .02 for drivers under 21, but the penalties were a slap on the wrist. The Tennessean reports an 18 year old drunk driver could lose their license for a year, pay a meager $250 fine, and face no additional penalties for young repeat offenders on their way to becoming serial drunk drivers. In fact, young drunk drivers could get their crimes expunged from their records creating an environment where one’s first DUI could actually be their 2nd or 3rd. Meanwhile, adults 21 and over also get 48 hours in jail, and a year probation with no expungement.
So Tennessee passed a DUI Bill treating 18-20 year old drivers the same as those over 21. Now all adults would face the same penalties for the same crime. Or it would be the same crime except for that pesky BAC limit of .02, so for drivers between 18 and 20, the bill also raised the legal limit from .02 to .08.
If you are surprised that a bill raising the legal limit for young drivers was written and even passed, you should be! Since the late ‘90s, a portion of each state’s Federal Highway Construction Funds have been tied directly to maintaining the Zero Tolerance legal limit for drivers under 21. Raise the limit and your state loses millions of dollars in highway funds.
By raising the legal limit for teen drivers, Tennessee faced losing 8%, or $60 million of their federal road funds.
Now state lawmakers are holding a special session to repeal the bill and reset the penalties for 18-20 year olds back to where they were.
“It wasn’t me!”
House Speaker Beth Harwell was among the more vocal to distance themselves from this embarrassing mistake. Harwell pointed out that this bill took 14 months from writing to passing. She notes that during that time, attorneys, analysts, and the commissioner of Transportation all gave this bill their blessing.
Harwell’s contention is huge. The link between highway funding and Zero Tolerance laws is fairly common knowledge among those of us who promote a culture of DUI prevention. It is indeed amazing that so many well-intended people could work on legislation like this without having a clue!