Allowed in 26 States : Drinking and Driving: a Legal Mix

Times Staff Writer

In this city of clogged highways, the evening drive from office to home can be as much as two beers long.

A trip to Dallas could easily be a six-packer, necessitating an ice chest to keep the road beers chilled for the five-hour drive.

In Texas, drinking and driving is as common as the 7-Eleven store. The state has no law against quaffing a Lone Star or sipping on a Scotch and soda while cruising down the interstate. Often, trips here begin at the package store.

While that may seem odd indeed to residents of California, where such practices have been banned since 1961, drinking and driving is legal in 26 states, according to statistics provided by the National Safety Council. Drivers and passengers can drink as they roll down the road in Maine and Mississippi, Vermont and Wyoming, so long as they are not legally drunk.

3,700 Miles of Drinking

If a traveler were driving from Key West, Fla., to the Idaho-Canadian border, he could pick a reasonably direct route that would allow him to drink non-stop for 3,700 miles. (In Idaho, he would have to switch to 3.2 beer because drinking more potent brews or hard liquor is not allowed.)

In the state of Maryland, the laws are written in such a way that drinking in a parked car is illegal, but drinking while driving is not.

This license to drink behind the wheel exists at a time when the national consciousness is focused on drunk driving and a number of states are passing tougher laws that severely penalize inebriated motorists.

Massachusetts has outlawed happy hours in bars, the practice of selling drinks at reduced prices. In New Jersey, party hosts can be held responsible for guests who drive drunk when they leave. But bans against drinking while driving, commonly known as open container laws because they outlaw such containers in vehicles, have so far escaped much public notice.

Group Seeks Laws

However, that may begin to change soon. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, now a major nationwide lobbying force, has made the passage of open container laws one of its primary goals. Despite that goal, MADD has no statistics comparing drunk driving deaths in states that have open container laws to those that do not. Neither does the National Safety Council.

Clay Hall, chief of program development for the office of alcohol countermeasures at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said such a study is nearly impossible because of a number of variables--such as different laws, penalties and enforcement. However, he did say that an open container law "does increase awareness in the public's mind and probably would give an officer probable cause if he saw someone swigging a can of beer" to pull the driver over.

Ann Seymour, the assistant to the president of MADD, was harsher in her description of drinking and driving.

"There's nothing worse than driving down the road and seeing someone swigging a can of beer," she said. "It's like having a weapon behind the wheel. But it (an open container law) is one of the most difficult things to get passed because people see it as a right. It has become a way of life for them."

Only two states, Iowa and South Carolina, have passed open container laws within the last year. MADD and the National Safety Council, which keeps track of drinking laws throughout the country, say that many states are like Texas, where there is an unwillingness to legislate against drinking and driving.

Several years ago, a South African journalist attended a press conference by Col. Jim Adams of the Texas Department of Public Safety. The recently arrived journalist, having noticed a number of persons drinking beer as they drove through the streets of Houston, asked Adams if there should not be a law against the practice.

Adams' reply was that Texans did not like that kind of new law.

Joe Darnall, an official with the Texas Alcohol Beverage Control Board, put it another way: "Down in this part of the country, people don't like too much regulation. It was the same way when I came to Texas 30 years ago. It's been like that forever.

"It's kind of hard to pinpoint support for it (drinking and driving) on a regional basis," he said. But areas of support "can be out in West Texas or in the Houston metroplex where people sometimes have an hour's commute."

Little Hope for Bills

A bill introduced in the last session of the Texas Legislature, calling for establishment of an open container law, died in committee. Similar bills have again been introduced in both the Texas House and Senate this year, but the sponsors have little hope that their measures will pass. They say Texas will probably raise the drinking age to 21, but only because, under new federal law, not doing so would threaten the flow of federal highway funds into state coffers.

State Rep. Gary Thompson, a Democrat from Abilene, is one of those who will push for legislation to make open containers in vehicles illegal during the legislative session, which began last week. He also has introduced a bill that would copy Massachusetts' law outlawing happy hours. But he said Texans' unwillingness to change their habits, along with liquor lobby pressure, will probably prevent passage.

"I've always thought it was ridiculous to allow people to drink and drive at the same time," he said. Speaking about legislation to ban open containers in vehicles, he said: "Of all the liquor laws I can think of, this is the most easily defended."

'Frontier Mentality'

"But it is sacrosanct in Texas because of the frontier mentality that is so much a part of the state. I think it derives from sportsmen who like tooling around in their pickups, or Joe Six-Pack drinking a beer on the way home from work. Those who are against the law will just ask why you are punishing Joe Six-Pack when he's not doing anybody any harm by having a beer on the way home."

State Sen. Bill Sarpalius of Amarillo, who will sponsor the legislation in the upper house, said he finds it somewhat absurd that Texas--a state with tough laws against drunk driving--nevertheless allows persons to drink and drive.

"I just don't believe an automobile is the place to be drinking," he said. "At home, that's fine. Texas has always been a state where it was more socially accepted to drink, anywhere you wanted to--in a car or walking down the street. It's something that was always accepted in Texas, but the times have changed."

Behind the Scenes

Thompson said he believes that the Texas liquor industry will probably take a mild stance publicly on the open container bill while working against it behind the scenes. Officials of both the Texas Licensed Beverage Distributors and the Texas Wholesale Beer Distributors declined to return repeated telephone calls regarding the legislation. Spokesmen for the nationwide Distilled Spirits Council and the U.S. Brewers Assn. said that neither group had an official policy regarding open container laws.

Rick Thornburg, vice president for government relations of the National Beer Wholesalers Assn., offered the only firm statement on policy. He said that if Congress tried to pass national legislation regarding open containers, or for that matter raising the legal drinking age, his group would oppose it on the basis that such laws are not the prerogative of the federal government.

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