The Tennessee Senate passed a bill that would ban open alcohol containers in vehicles despite concerns raised by prosecutors and safety officials the measure could cause drunken driving enforcement efforts to lose funding.
The Senate on April 29 voted 23-7 to approve the bill sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Mae Beavers, a Mount Juliet Republican. The companion bill is still pending in the House.
“We’re trying to get people off the roads who are driving drunk,” said Beavers. “And if you are allowing people to have an open container, that’s not going to help our drunk driving laws.”
About $12 million in federal road money is currently diverted from the state’s road fund to the Governor’s Highway Safety Office because Tennessee is out of compliance with federal laws on open containers.
The safety office spends the money on public awareness campaigns, specialized drunken driving prosecutors and for police overtime grants for DUI enforcement. If the open container bill becomes law, the safety money could go back to road building and maintenance.
“We need to have the ability to spend our federal dollars as we see fit in this state,” Beavers said. “This is a bill that we need to pass. It will give the department more flexibility, and it will also help with our drunk driving problem.”
Kendell Poole, director of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, said he has seen no studies that link passengers having open containers to increased drunken-driving fatalities. Tennessee already bans drivers from drinking alcohol.
Wally Kirby, executive director of the Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference, has said the law could cause the loss of 24 specialized drunken driving prosecutors funded through the safety office.
Sen. Beverly Marrero, a Memphis Democrat, took issue with the proposed exemption for limousines and recreational vehicles.
“People who are wealthy and can afford to hire a driver and limos can have open containers, but a person who choses a designated driver, these people would be liable under this bill,” she said.
“It seems to me this bill is a little bit elitist,” she said.
Beavers said those exemptions were included because drivers of larger vehicles aren’t as likely to be within reach of people who are drinking.
Sen. Douglas Henry, D-Nashville, said he considers the federal law an unwelcome intrusion onto state rights.
“I don’t think the Washington government is qualified to assess the habits of Tennesseans as to whether or not they know how to drive or how to drink,” he said.
Read HB3059 on the General Assembly’s Web site at: http://www.legislature.state.tn.us
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