Tennessee bill seeking to punish adults who smoke in vehicles with children present fails

Clay Bennett poses for a photo illustration about smoking outside of the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Wednesday, Jan 24, 2018 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

NASHVILLE - A bill allowing police to cite adult motorists who are smoking in vehicles with children present narrowly failed on the state Senate floor Wednesday after a fierce debate about health versus personal freedom.

The vote was 16-8. Seventeen "yes" votes were required to pass the bill.

"It's not intended to be punitive to the driver," said Sen. Richard Briggs, R-Knoxville, a physician and sponsor of the bill. "It's intended to be an education on the hazards of smoking in a closed vehicle."

photo Richard Briggs

Briggs said all he wanted to do was decrease the hazard to children.

Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, said the legislation "was an overreach into the lives of all Tennesseans" and motorists passing through the state, as well.

"This bill came to my committee as a Trojan horse," he charged.

The bill would apply to adults in vehicles where there are children 14 years old and under inside the vehicle. Smoking with a child present would not be a "primary offense" that police could use to pull over a motorist. Instead, the decision to pull someone over would be based on an offense like speeding.

A first offense would be punishable only by the issuance of a warning citation. A second offense would be a Class D misdemeanor punishable by a fine of $20 and court costs could not exceed $10.

Third and subsequent offenses would be a Class C misdemeanor with fines of $50 and court costs limited to $10.

A traffic citation that is based solely upon a violation would be considered a non-moving traffic violation and thus no points would be added to a driver's record for the violation.

"All we're trying to do is educate the public, where people may be smoking in a vehicle with a restrained child, not to do it," said Briggs, noting that noxious cigarette fumes inside a vehicle can be 10 times those found in a house.

Bailey sarcastically questioned whether the next step would be a ban on giving a child a "sugary drink or a Twinkie? Because those things are just as bad."

It's "a blatant attack on parental rights and authority," Bailey added.

Countered Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, a physician: "A child enclosed in a car with the parent smoking, I personally think is child abuse."

It's not much of a penalty, Hensley said after describing impacts of second-hand smoke on children he sees. But it is "sending a message to parents they have another responsibility."

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.