TN loses out on federal funds over weak texting law

By Nate Rau | The Tennessean

Tennessee is missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal funds because its state law banning texting while driving is not strong enough.

For the first time ever, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dedicated grant dollars this year for states that enact and enforce distracted-driving laws.

But in last year's update of the federal highway safety law, MAP-21, Congress set strict specifications for what a state's texting-while-driving law must look like to qualify for a portion of the $17.53 million.

Tennessee's law falls short because of its narrow definition of texting while driving and because its penalty for violating the law does not escalate if someone does it again and again.

State Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who spearheaded the passage of the original law, said he planned to introduce legislation next year to beef up the fines. But Lundberg said his goal was public safety, not funding.

Seven states and Guam won the texting-while-driving grants this year.

"There was no money earmarked for distracted driving in previous years. So while we know it is a huge problem, we're sitting here going, 'Can we please have some money to address this?' " said Kendell Poole, director of the Tennessee Governor's Highway Safety Office. "Even though Tennessee has a no-texting law, and it's enforced and it's a $50 fine, we still did not qualify for distracted-driving funds because they made it so rigid."

An analysis of the grant requirements released by NHTSA in 2012 shows that Tennessee did not qualify for two possible grants -- one specifically for texting-while-driving enforcement and one more broadly for distracted-driving enforcement.

Under Lundberg's original bill, which the legislature passed into law in 2009, sending or reading electronic messages is illegal only while your vehicle is in motion. But the grant guidelines said that to qualify for the texting-while-driving grant money, the state law must make it illegal to send or read electronic messages whether the car is in motion or not.

Tennessee did not apply for the broader distracted-driving grant, and a NHTSA spokeswoman said no states qualified for that grant funding.

Because only a portion of the $17.53 million was dispersed, the remaining funds will be divided among all 50 states to improve their crash data collection.

Escalating penalty

Lundberg said legislation he plans to introduce in 2014 would increase the first-time fine to $250 and escalate the fine for subsequent violations. Lundberg's legislation also would make texting while driving a violation that would lead to a driver receiving points on his or her license. Right now drivers may receive points on their licenses for texting while driving only if another traffic violation, such as speeding or failure to maintain the driving lane, also took place.

But Lundberg said he wasn't worried about qualifying for the federal grants; he just wants the state's roads to be safer. He didn't say whether he would consider changing the definition of texting while driving to include sending or receiving an electronic message when the car is not in motion.

"I wouldn't do it just to see a federal grant," Lundberg said. "But if it is creating great safety and cutting down on violations, that would be something to consider."

States use federal grants from NHTSA for specialized highway safety efforts such as driving drunk and seat belt checkpoints.

Each state's Governor's Highway Safety Office acts as a pass-through agency by providing the funds to local police departments to cover overtime costs and other expenses associated with the extra enforcement, and then tries to make sure the funds are spent correctly.

Federal funds also pay for ad campaigns such as "Booze It and Lose It" and "Click It or Ticket."

Grant winners

2013 grant winners for texting-while-driving enforcement funds:

Georgia: $1.63 million

Minnesota: $1.22 million

Arkansas: $755,643

Maine: $459,082

West Virginia: $459,082

North Dakota: $459,082

Rhode Island: $459,082

Guam: $153,027

Contact Nate Rau at 615-259-8094 or Follow him on Twitter @tnnaterau.


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