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Open Container Laws And
Alcohol Involved Crashes

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DOT HS 809 426

Some Preliminary Data

April 2002


Technical Documentation Page
Executive Summary
Background
Purpose of Section 154
Open Container Law Incentives
Open Container Law Conformance Criteria
Status of Conformance: October 2000
Evaluation of the Effects of Open Container Laws

Public Opinion Concerning Open Container Laws
Conclusions
Acknowledgments
References 
Appendix A: Data Tables

Table 1: Summary of Previous Open Container Laws In the First Four States to Enact Laws to Conform with TEA-21 Requirements


Figure 1: Percent of All Fatal Crashes That Were Alcohol-Involved: Six-Month Period After Enforcement Began Compared to the Same Period in the Previous Year


Figure 2: Nighttime Hit-and-Run Crashes: Six-Month Period After Enforcement Began Compared to the Same Period in the Previous Year

Figure 3: Percent of All Fatal Crashes That Were Alcohol-Involved

Figure 4: Percent of Residents Who Believe Their States Should Have An Open Container Law

 

This report presents the results of a study conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to assess the highway safety effects of laws that prohibit open containers of alcoholic beverages to be located in the passenger compartment of motor vehicles operated on public roadways. These laws are commonly referred to as Open Container laws. 

Open Container Law Conformance Criteria

The regulations resulting from the TEA-21 Restoration Act specify six elements that state Open Container laws must include to conform to the Federal Standard and to enable a state to avoid the transfer of Federal-aid highway construction funds. The required elements are described in the following paragraphs.5

To fully conform to the federal requirements, an Open Container law must... 

1. Prohibit possession of any open alcoholic beverage container and the consumption of any alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle.

A state’s open container law must prohibit the possession of any open alcoholic beverage container and the consumption of any alcoholic beverage in the passenger area of any motor vehicle that is located on a public highway or right-of-way. However, state laws and proposed legislation that prohibit possession without prohibiting consumption also have been found to be in conformance with the possession and consumption criterion because in order to consume an alcoholic beverage, an individual must first have that beverage in their possession. 

2. Specify the passenger area of any motor vehicle.

The open container law must apply to the passenger area of any motor vehicle. “Passenger area” is defined as the area designed to seat the driver and passengers while the motor vehicle is in operation and any area that is readily accessible to the driver or a passenger while in their seating positions, including the glove compartment. Vehicles without trunks may have an open alcoholic beverage container behind the last upright seat or in an area not normally occupied by the driver or passengers. A law that permits the possession of open alcoholic beverage containers in an unlocked glove compartment, however, will not conform to the requirements. “Motor vehicle” is defined in the regulation to mean a vehicle driven or drawn by mechanical power and manufactured primarily for use on public highways. The term does not include a vehicle operated exclusively on a rail or rails. 

3. Apply to all alcoholic beverages.

The open container law must apply to all alcoholic beverages. “Alcoholic beverage” is defined in the regulation to include all types of alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine and distilled spirits. Beer, wine, and distilled spirits are covered by the definition if they contain one-half of one percent or more of alcohol by volume. An “open alcoholic beverage container” is any bottle, can, or other receptacle that contains any amount of alcoholic beverage, and that is open or has a broken seal, or the contents of which are partially removed. 

4. Apply to all occupants.

The open container law must apply to all occupants of the motor vehicle, including the driver and all passengers. The statute provides for two exceptions, however, to the all-occupant requirement. A law will be deemed to apply to all occupants if the law prohibits the possession of any open alcoholic beverage container by the driver, but permits possession of alcohol by passengers in “the passenger area of a motor vehicle designed, maintained or used primarily for the transportation of persons for compensation” (e.g., buses, taxis, limousines) and passengers “in the living quarters of a house coach or house trailer.” 

5. Specify on a public highway or the right-of-way of a public highway.

The open container law must apply to a motor vehicle while it is located anywhere on a public highway or the right-of-way of a public highway. The agencies have defined “public highway or the right-of-way of a public highway” to include a roadway and the shoulder alongside of it. 

6. Specify primary enforcement.

A state must provide for primary enforcement of its open container law. Under a primary enforcement law, officers have the authority to enforce the law without the need to show that they had probable cause to believe that another violation had been committed. An open container law that provides for secondary enforcement does not conform to the requirements of the regulation.