A proposal to tighten Tennessee’s open-container law could allow state officials to spend more money on infrastructure projects instead of on safety programs.
State Transportation Department officials said Tuesday that about $15 million in federal road-building money is currently diverted because state rules don’t meet national standards. About $12 million of that money is instead directed to the state’s road safety programs.
The current law makes it illegal to drink while driving, but it doesn’t apply to passengers. A bill that advanced out of the House State and Local Government Committee on Tuesday would expand the ban to anybody riding in a vehicle.
Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol and the measure’s main sponsor, said the bill would lead to removal of current limitations on how the state spends the federal road money.
Paul Degges, the chief engineer for the state Transportation Department, said it’s unclear why the state nets less federal money when it is transferred from general to safety uses.
“Frankly, we have tried to get a little more clarity from Washington on the difference between those two figures (without success),” he said.
Degges said the department wouldn’t immediately switch all the money away from safety programs.
“The commissioner would have flexibility,” he said. “Today he does not have flexibility.”
The federal money is currently directed to the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, which focuses on safe driving programs.
The open container measure advanced on a voice vote on Tuesday, but some members voiced their opposition to the scope of the bill.
“This is not drinking while driving, it’s drinking while riding,” said Rep. Ulysses Jones, D-Memphis and the committee’s chairman. “I think you’re all making a big mistake.”
Rep. Larry Miller, D-Memphis, said he worries that the proposal would allow police to stop any car where passengers were suspected of drinking alcohol.
“If I’ve got a cup of water, an officer can’t distinguish what that is, and then he can (make the) stop,” he said. “I don’t want officers out there profiling with this legislation.”
Miller also questioned the measure’s definition of an open container to include a bottle or can with even a minimal amount of liquid in it.
Lundberg explained that the intent is to keep people from trying to quickly dispose of the evidence once they are pulled over.
“We’re certainly not trying to get people to chug a beer,” he said.
Read HB3059 on the General Assembly’s Web site at: http://www.legislature.state.tn.us
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