In the United States, open container laws prohibit open containers of alcohol in certain areas, as well as the consumption of alcohol in those areas. Typically these laws refer to public places, such as parks, and motor vehicles. The purpose of these laws is to prevent both drunk driving and public intoxication. Like drinking and driving laws, open container laws are state laws (not federal) and differ from state to state.
The United States Federal Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) was signed into law in June, 1998. The regulations resulting from the TEA-21 Act (and recent MAP-21) specify six elements that state open container laws must include in order to continue to receive monetary incentives for highway construction funds. Currently 39 states and the District of Columbia are in compliance with TEA-21. To comply, each state’s motor vehicle open container law is required to contain the following components:
- Prohibit possession of any open alcoholic beverage container and the consumption of any alcoholic beverage in a motor vehicle;
- Cover the passenger area of any motor vehicle, including unlocked glove compartments and any other areas of the vehicle that are readily accessible to the driver or passengers while in their seats;
- Apply to all alcoholic beverages;
- Apply to all vehicle occupants except for passengers of vehicles designed, maintained or used primarily for the transportation of people for compensation (such as buses, taxi cabs, and limousines) or the living quarters of motor homes;
- Apply to all vehicles on a public highway or the right-of-way (i.e. on the shoulder) of a public highway;
- Require primary enforcement of the law, rather than requiring probable cause that another violation had been committed before allowing enforcement of the open container law.
Note the following facts and data about the success of open container laws:
Open container laws save lives. One study found a 5.1% decrease in fatal crash rates in states that have open container laws.
Open container laws reduce hit-and-run crashes. Maine, South Dakota and Rhode Island found a significant decrease in hit-and-run crashes after enacting open container laws.
The public supports open container laws. An astonishing 83 percent of people in states without an open container law said they would support such a law in their state.
The consequence for an open container violation is usually a fine of around $100; however, many people who are found with an open container often face charges of public intoxication, underage drinking and/or DUI, which all have much steeper consequences. Note that even in states that don’t have a state open container law, most local municipalities have a law prohibiting open containers in their jurisdictions. If you are unsure of the laws in your area, play it safe; leave your drink at home or at the bar and hand your car keys to a designated driver.