Drinking, seat belts on Montana's legislative agenda

| 12/30/2004

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

Efforts filed in the Montana Legislature would add those provisions to the state’s laws.

Montana is one of about a dozen states that allows open alcohol containers in vehicles; last year, that distinction forced Montana to divert $11.5 million of its highway construction budget and put it to other uses.

The federal government mandated in 2001 that states pass the provisions 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.

Under current Montana 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 bill – HB91 – by Rep. Christopher Harris, D-Bozeman, would ban consumption and possession of open containers of alcohol in vehicles traveling public roadways. Violators would be fined up to $100.

Exceptions would be made for passengers in rented limousines, campers, motor homes, buses or taxis.

In addition to the open container legislation, Sen. Mike Cooney, D-Helena, has offered a measure – SB43 – that would permit police to pull over drivers who are not buckled up. Currently, police can ticket drivers for seat belt violations only after stopping a vehicle for another traffic violation.