Virginia opts against stricter open-container provision

| 3/9/2005

An effort in the Virginia House to toughen the state’s open container law has failed passage.

Prior to the close of the session, the House Militia, Police and Public Safety Committee decided against forwarding a bill to add a ban on open containers of alcohol in vehicles to state law.

As a result, Virginia will continue to be forced to spend a portion of its federal highway money on traffic safety.

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.

The bill, sponsored by Delegate Harry Purkey, R-Virginia Beach, would have fined a person $25 if an officer caught him or her with an open container of alcohol in the front of a motor vehicle.

Law enforcement officials favored the stricter law, but the committee rejected it.

Lawmakers who voted in opposition of the proposal cited concerns it would discourage designated drivers from transporting drinkers.