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Ban on open alcohol containers considered

January 15, 2002
By: Brian Connolly
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Putting the lids on liquor in cars became one of the first bills heard by a legislative committee in this year's session of the Missouri General Assembly Tuesday.

The Senate Transportation committee heard testimony on the bill, including opposition from the state's largest brewery.

The bill would bring Missouri in compliance with requirements attached to $10.4 million in federal transportation funds. Failure to comply with those requirements by Oct. 1 will force the state to spend the funds on highway safety rather than maintenance and construction.

"What we're trying to do is take every step possible to keep people from becoming intoxicated while they're behind the wheel," said the bill's sponsor -- Sen. Morris Westfall, R-Halfway.

Anheuser-Busch Lobbyist John Britton said gaining flexibility with transportation funds is not reason enough to pass the bill.

"I've also never had anyone tell me of an instance where a person with an open container in the car, other than the driver, has caused a traffic accident," Britton said.

Although the legislation is the final "piece of the puzzle" to bring Missouri in line with federal requirements, Westfall said the big issue is safety.

"It's not just the federal dollars," Westfall said. "It's a safety issue and I think it's preventive rather than punishment.

Missouri's current open container law prohibits drivers from possessing alcohol but does not cover passengers. That makes it difficult to catch offenders, Westfall said.

"The current law is not enforceable according to law enforcement because all the driver has to do is hand his container to someone in the vehicle with him," he said.

Bans on open containers for passengers exist in 31 states, Westfall said. The proposed legislation would not include passengers in chartered tour buses or recreational vehicles.

Last May the legislature voted to lower the legal blood alcohol content level for drivers from .10 to .08.

"This will be more difficult," Westfall said.