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When Tennessee’s lawmakers revised the state’s drunk driving laws earlier this year, they didn’t anticipate that one change could cost them as much as $60 million in federal highway funding.

BAC limits for underage drivers

Tennessee’s Senate Bill 1317, which went into effect on July 1, redefined the standards and penalties for underage drunk driving. Previously, drivers under 21 could be cited for impaired driving with a BAC of over 0.02. Under the new law the 0.02 BAC now applies only to 16- and 17-year-old drivers, while drivers 18 and older are considered to be impaired at 0.08 BAC. Drivers under 21 with a positive BAC can still be cited for underage drinking.

State lawmakers made the change as part of a larger effort to introduce stiffer penalties for all impaired driving. The new law imposes more severe consequences—including higher fines and jail time—on 18- to 20-year-olds who are caught driving drunk.

Zero tolerance for underage drinking

The bill easily passed in both of the state’s chambers. However, lawmakers say they didn’t realize it put the state out of compliance with federal “zero tolerance” requirements for underage drivers. Zero tolerance laws—in place in every state since 1998—are based on the idea that since it is illegal for people under 21 to drink, it should be illegal for people under 21 to drive with any amount of alcohol in their system.

Zero tolerance laws can allow for up to a 0.02 BAC to account for the differences in testing equipment, but no higher. States out of compliance with the federal standard can lose up to 8% of their federal highway funding—money that most states can’t afford to do without.

Misstep by a leader in DUI enforcement?

In recent years Tennessee has earned recognition for passing a number of new laws aimed at curbing drunk driving, including adding provisions for electronic alcohol monitoring and treatment for repeat offenders. However, this latest law may cause the state more problems than it solves.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has given Tennessee until October 1 to bring its law in line with federal requirements. Tennessee officials have asked for a waiver, arguing that the harsher penalties and the totality of the state’s underage drinking laws are in keeping with the spirit of the zero tolerance requirement. Barring that, lawmakers will need to convene a special session in the coming weeks to update the law or risk losing out on $60 million.

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Alison Betts

Alison Betts

Alison Betts has over 15 years of experience as a communications professional and researcher in corporate, nonprofit, and high education settings. Betts joined AMS in 2013 and is currently a Senior Manager of Marketing & Public Relations. Prior to coming to AMS, she held research and teaching positions at universities in Arizona and Colorado. Betts has also served as a public relations professional and grant writer in the nonprofit sector, where she saw first-hand the devastating impact of alcohol and substance abuse on families and communities. Betts holds an MA in English from the University of Colorado and a Master’s in Applied Communications from the University of Denver.

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