The right to an open container

April 29, 2003|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO -- If you want to get a reputation for being irresponsible, members of the Montana legislature can tell you how to do it: Refuse to pass measures that are supposed to curb drunken driving. That's what they did this session, and it seems to be working for them.

The law in question was a ban on carrying open containers of alcohol in a car or truck. Montana had already gotten an "F" for its drunken-driving record from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and this choice did not raise its standing.

The legislature didn't exactly ignore the problem. It tightened the blood-alcohol limit from 0.10 to 0.08, and it passed a measure requiring sobriety tests for drivers involved in serious accidents. But it let the open-container ban die, and that was taken to signify moral obtuseness. "I think there's still some carry-over from people whose view is their individual rights are being trampled on," Bill Muhs, head of a local MADD chapter, told the Associated Press. "So here we are, the last state to enact some of the most fundamental drunken-driving laws."

Or maybe this decision is just a carry-over from citizens who want a sound justification before they butt into people's lives.

It may sound self-evident that if you allow motorists to drink while driving, they are more likely to drive drunk. But what is self-evident is not always true.

After all, anyone who is inclined to drive under the influence can get plenty tanked before getting behind the wheel. Anyone who drinks responsibly at home or at a bar will probably drink responsibly while driving to choir practice. As it happens, you don't even have to drink to run afoul of this kind of law. If you take some wine to a restaurant, and drive home with the unused portion on the backseat, you're just as guilty as if you're swigging Cutty Sark straight from the bottle.

I'm strongly in favor of laws that directly attack drunken driving or have proven value in saving lives -- such as the 0.08 blood-alcohol standard and the 21-year-old drinking age. But I'm opposed to regulating what people may do on the mere possibility that it may help.

This type of law falls into the second category. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently commissioned a study on such policies. The researchers looked at four states that passed laws to ban open containers, to see what happened with fatal crashes involving alcohol.

What happened was a big fat nothing. In one state, there was no change. In the other three, the decline was so minuscule that it was not statistically significant.

Other evidence is equally unconvincing. States that allow open containers do have "higher proportions of alcohol-involved fatal crashes" than those without a ban, according to the NHTSA. But that doesn't prove the laws account for the gap. It may just mean that in places where drunken driving is viewed with strong distaste, people are less likely to do it -- and more likely to pass laws like this. Pacifists wouldn't buy machine guns even if machine guns were legal.

From my observations, I gather that an open-container ban, which we have here in Illinois, is very effective at keeping the roadways liberally decorated with beer cans. A substantial number of motorists are not deterred from drinking while driving -- only from keeping empties in the car while driving.

You may reply that an open-container ban is helpful because it gives police grounds for citing someone who's stopped for some other reason. But how does that justify the law? If police go after someone who's driving erratically, she can be punished both for the traffic violations and, if she fails a sobriety test, for drunken driving. In either case, it shouldn't matter if that half-empty can in the cup holder contains Budweiser or Mountain Dew.

The freedom to have a beer behind the wheel is not one that most of us rank very high. But as Montana legislators recognize, it's not so trivial that we should give it up without a good reason.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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