Open container law diverts road funds in Virginia

| 12/21/2004

Virginia is being forced to spend a portion of its federal highway money on traffic safety because the state doesn’t have a ban on open containers of alcohol in vehicles.

Legislation filed in the Virginia House of Delegates would add the ban to state law.

The state is one of about a dozen nationwide that allows open alcohol containers in vehicles; last year, that distinction forced Virginia to divert 3 percent, or about $9 million, of its highway construction budget and put it to other uses.

The federal government mandated in 2001 that states either pass open container laws or spend a percentage of federal highway dollars on public safety projects such as drunken driving checkpoints and installing cables in medians to prevent crossover accidents.

“It’s not designed as a punishment, but it is a transfer from one use to another,” Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said recently. “If safety is diminished by the fact they don’t have an open-container law, some funds have to be used for enforcement programs or the reduction of hazards.”

Under Virginia law, drivers are prohibited from having an open alcoholic beverage, but passengers 21 years of age or older are free to drink while in a moving vehicle.

A proposal by Delegate Harry Purkey, R-Virginia Beach, would ban consumption and possession of open containers of alcohol in vehicles traveling public roadways. Violators would be fined $25.