Artic_photo via shutterstock
Back seat of vehicle (Artic_photo via shutterstock)

HARTFORD, CT —The Department of Transportation is again proposing legislation to make it illegal for passengers to have open containers of alcohol in a vehicle.

The department has proposed similar legislation for the past 17 years, but every year it dies on the House calendar, according to a DOT policy memo.

In order to meet federal standards states have been required to enact a law making it illegal for the driver or passenger to possess or consume from any open alcoholic beverage container in the passenger area of a motor vehicle.

Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming are the only states that have yet to enact an open container law.

States without an open container law have a fixed percentage of National Highway Performance Program (NHPP) and Surface Transportation Block Grant Program (STBGP) funds transferred into the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP). A portion of the penalty funds are transferred to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), for impaired driving countermeasure programs, and a portion of the funds returned to Federal Highway Administration, for eligible activities.

To date, Connecticut’s total penalty amount for noncompliance is $152.6 million. Connecticut still received that money, but was forced to use it on those safety programs, instead of infrastructure improvements.

Enacting open container legislation would allow the department to use these funds for their intended purpose infrastructure improvements.

“The Department has partaken in numerous workgroups with various organizations including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to develop strategies for passage and alternative language,” DOT officials said. “However, no one proposal has met any of the diverse and sometimes irrelevant objections to the proposal. Meanwhile, the Department is required by NHTSA to demonstrate a continued advocacy for this proposal.”

Rep. Roland Lemar, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said people generally agree that the open container practice should be prohibited. However, there are some who don’t like the probability of increased police interaction.

“Someone drinking something in the backseat is just another reason to pull you over,” Lemar said.

Lemar said he understands the argument, but still supports making open containers of alcohol in vehicles illegal for “ both the public safety public health benefits in addition to us suffering this penalty.”

The department is also looking to enact a rear seat belt law.

A similar proposal has been submitted to the Transportation Committee for the last five years.

Currently, passengers in the back seat or subsequent seating positions behind the front seat can ride unrestrained unless they are under the age of 16 or covered under the child safety seat component of this statute.

In all crashes, back seat lap/shoulder belts are 44% effective in reducing fatalities when compared to unrestrained back seat occupants and in all crashes, back seat lap/shoulder belts are 15% effective in reducing fatalities when compared to back seat lap belts, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

“In 1985, Connecticut enacted one of the nation’s first seatbelt laws,” Alec Slatky, director of public and government affairs for AAA Northeast said in prepared testimony last year. “Since then, seat belts have saved thousands of lives in Connecticut and hundreds of thousands of lives across the United States. But Connecticut, once a leader in occupant protection, has fallen behind. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia require that all back-seat passengers buckle up; in Connecticut, only those under 16 years old must do so.”

He noted that studies indicate that unbelted rear seat passengers are three times more likely to be killed in a collision, and eight times more likely to be seriously injured than passengers wearing belts.

“According to AAA analysis of the Connecticut Crash Data Repository, more than 50 unbelted rear seat occupants ages 16+ have been killed in Connecticut since 2010, and more than 1700 have been injured, including at least one fatality in every county and at least one injury in more than 150 towns,” he said.

Lemar said he’s personally in favor of both the open container law and rear seatbelts because of the public health and safety benefits.