On the ‘Open Container’ Law and Fed Funding

Tennessee and 18 other states are already restricted in how they spend some federal highway funds because they haven’t complied with federal mandates to combat drunken driving – notably by not enacting an “open container” law statewide. The Tennessean reports that 14 more states are facing the prospect of having federal funds held in reserve while the Federal Highway Administration completes an assessment of their laws.
A combined $539 million would have to be spent on anti-drunken-driving programs or highway safety improvements instead of on general road and bridge construction in those states.
…Jack Basso, chief operating officer of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said it appears the federal government has tightened its application of the rules.
“Probably they are within their authority,” Basso said. “The question is, is it really achieving the spirit of the law?”
Federal officials say they had to review states’ drunken-driving laws after Congress updated federal highway programs last year, including changes to some compliance requirements.
Tennessee’s open container laws for years have fallen short of federal regulations, said Kendell Poole, director of the state’s Governor’s Highway Safety Office. In Tennessee, it is legal for vehicle passengers to possess open containers of alcohol — just not drivers.
“Tennessee is known as a pass-the-bottle state,” Poole said. “The short of it is, because we don’t have an open container law that complies, we’re penalized road construction dollars. … But it comes back to the state in terms of behavioral programs, like the Booze It and Lose It campaign, and also grant awards.”
He said the state has been “penalized” similarly for at least a decade. The penalty means Tennessee can’t use the federal money for road construction projects but can divert it to alcohol-related public information campaigns and state transportation efforts that involve the installation of rumble strips, cable wire barriers and other hazard elimination projects.
Poole said his office supports strengthening the state’s open container laws, but legislative efforts have so far been unsuccessful.


Note: Rep. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, has a bill to enact an “open container” law in Tennessee again this year as HB84. It’s not an administration bill, but there is a Haslam administration bill to rewrite the state’s DUI laws, as proposed by Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons. That bill is SB186.

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