Open container law diverts Tennessee highway funds

| 3/18/2005

Tennessee is required to spend a chunk of its federal highway dollars on traffic safety because the state doesn’t have a ban on open containers of alcohol in vehicles.

The state is one of only 14 nationwide that allow open alcohol containers in vehicles. Last year, that distinction forced the state to pull 3 percent, or about $12 million, out of the 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 installing cables to prevent crossover accidents and staging drunken driving checkpoints.

“It’s not designed as a punishment but it is a transfer from one use to another,” said Tim Hurd, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “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.

Tennessee law outlaws drivers from having an open container of alcohol, but passengers 21 years of age or older are free to drink while in a moving vehicle.

A bill introduced by Sen. Jim Bryson, R-Franklin, would eliminate the open container provision in state law.

Violators could get up to one year in jail and/or up to a $2,500 fine.

Exceptions would be made for passengers in taxis, limousines and recreational vehicles.

SB89 is in the Senate Transportation Committee.