I’ve lived in Connecticut for all but one of the last 36 years and have been an observer of what goes on in the Capitol for most of that time, so there isn’t a whole lot that surprises me when I hear people complain about our laws and systems of governance.
But a story from CTNewsJunkie last week left me scratching my head. The state Department of Transportation is pushing for a law that says no one inside of a moving vehicle can possess or drink from an open alcoholic beverage container.
I’d long assumed the open-container prohibition was either state law or that it was one of those areas of the law in which the federal government withholds highway funds unless states complied with the federal mandate, as was the case with the national 55-mile-per-hour speed limit law signed by President Nixon in 1974 in the wake of the previous year’s Arab oil embargo. Even the states that disliked the new speed limit grudgingly complied, lest they lose, in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars per year.
Turns out the open-container law is a watered-down version of the aforementioned coercive federal policy. States that refuse to enact open-container laws – and, including Connecticut, there are 12 – must have a portion of their federal highway grants diverted away from infrastructure funds and into what the DOT calls “impaired driving countermeasure programs.”
“To date, Connecticut’s total penalty amount for noncompliance is $152.6 million,” Stuart wrote. “Connecticut still received that money, but was forced to use it on those safety programs, instead of infrastructure improvements.”
It boggles the mind that Connecticut has yet to take the step of enacting an open-container law in order to claim its rightful share of highway funds. If I were a lawmaker, I would succumb to the pressure to vote for it, even though I don’t otherwise think it’s a necessary law. Blackmail usually works and this is where my libertarian streak kicks in.
I have yet to hear a compelling reason why we need open-container laws. My concern about drinking in cars is limited to whether the driver is doing it and whether said driver is drunk. What possible concern is it of mine whether the passengers are drunk or, for that matter, whether they’re operating a still in the back seat?
And there is the downside of giving police officers another weapon in their probable-cause arsenal. Or as Rep. Roland Lemar, who co-chairs the Transportation Committee, said, “Someone drinking something in the backseat is just another reason to pull you over.”
I understand the argument that passengers who are drinking could be unruly and might distract the sober driver. But I can’t see how that would be more of a problem than misbehaving children or the family dog climbing over the front seat and clamoring for attention.
Besides, if drunken passengers are really a safety hazard, then what would become of the designated driver? Couldn’t the DD become just as distracted by a pair of empty-handed sots in the back seat? Using the logic of open-container law advocates, anyone whose blood-alcohol level exceeds the legal limit should not set foot in a vehicle.
But as a practical matter, we need the money from the feds. The DOT has proposed legislation banning open containers in vehicles for the last 17 years, but every session it dies in the House of Representatives. Both houses of the General Assembly should pass it and Gov. Lamont should sign it. As we all know, our roads and bridges are some of the worst in the nation. I hate to violate my principles but money talks.
Speaking of motor vehicle laws I can reluctantly support, there is the matter of motorcycle safety. Common sense tells us everyone riding on a motorcycle should wear a helmet. Currently, all motorcyclists under 18 must wear one. Last year the House passed a bill mandating helmets for motorcycle drivers and passengers under 21 but it stalled in the Senate.
Connecticut once had a law requiring the use of motorcycle helmets. As was the case with the 55 mph speed limit, the federal government withheld funds to those states without helmet laws. But after the feds halted that practice, Connecticut repealed its helmet law in 1976.
Here I check my libertarian instincts at the door. Anti-helmet-law activists such as the Connecticut Motorcycle Riders Association cast their opposition as a matter of “freedom of choice.” But that logic falls apart when one considers what happens when a helmetless cyclist survives a traumatic brain injury in a crash. The resulting treatments, in many cases made more expensive and time-consuming because of the lack of a helmet, are passed on to other insurance ratepayers, including those who are smart enough to wear helmets. I support seat belt laws for the same reason.
In other words, the motorcyclist’s “freedom” becomes everyone else’s burden. Kudos for Rep. Michelle Cook of Torrington for her political bravery in leading the fight to expand the existing helmet law. If you’ve driven around Torrington on a warm spring day and noticed the number of motorcycles in that town, then you know what I mean.
Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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