Open container law diverts millions from Missouri roads

KCUR-FM

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's decision to allow open containers of alcohol in vehicles forces the state to divert millions of federal dollars intended for road construction to safety programs, according to a public radio report. 

The state's policy of letting passengers drink in moving vehicles violates federal safety laws. Because of the violation, Missouri has moved about $370 million in highway construction funds to safety programs since 2001, KCUR-FM reported.

Congress established federal standards prohibiting open containers of alcohol in 1998. 

"It's an interesting dilemma, because it does take money away from what I'll call our everyday road and bridge projects," says Jon Nelson, assistant to the state highway safety and traffic engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation. "But it does still get spent on the roadway through those safety improvements."

In the last few years, Missouri has diverted between 1.5% and 3% of its construction money for safety programs, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation.

Currently, the penalty is 2.5% — about $22.7 million per year.

Around $17 million of that goes to infrastructure improvements like guard cables and rumble strips. Nelson said the funding has paid for most of the safety features on major roadways like Interstate 70.

The remaining $5.7 million is used for behavioral campaigns, primarily DWI enforcement and DWI media campaigns.

Federal crash data suggests that the safety spending might have improved safety on Missouri roadways. 

Between 2001 and 2019, traffic fatalities across the country have decreased by 14%. But during the same time, traffic fatalities in Missouri decreased by nearly 20%, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Experts say allowing passengers to drink in vehicles can lead to several safety problems.

"The safety improvements are saving lives, but then you also have to also be able to think about what impact is the policy itself having on causing those behaviors in the first place," Nelson says.

Advocates point to data that indicates Missouri is falling behind other states in reducing drinking and driving. Polling by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention released in 2018 found that 2.2% of Missouri adults said they had driven after drinking too much, higher than the national rate of 1.7%.

CDC data also shows that, as of 2018, Missouri had an alcohol-impaired driving death rate of 3.9 deaths per 100,000, compared to 3.2 per 100,000 nationally.

Along with allowing open containers, Missouri lawmakers in 2017 defunded sobriety checkpoints. The Missouri State Highway Patrol has not conducted sobriety checkpoints since 2017.

Patrol spokesman Lt. Eric Brown said the patrol catches intoxicated drivers with patrols and DWI saturations.

The group Mothers Against Drunk Driving wants Missouri to do more to prevent drunken driving — starting with enforcing open container policies and bringing back sobriety checkpoints.

"Right now, Missouri is behind in our impaired driving prevention, as far as what our officers are able to do out on the road," says regional executive director Allyson Summers.