NMA E-Newsletter #293: An Overview of Open Container Laws

With Labor Day just around the corner, many of us will hit the road for one last road trip before summer turns to fall. One often overlooked and misunderstood hazard of this endeavor concerns so-called open container laws. This becomes even more of an issue when it comes to motor homes.

The issue of open containers is not regulated or legislated at the federal level. States pass their own laws. However, the feds do exert some influence over open container control through the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21). TEA-21 establishes guidelines for open containers in vehicles, which the states must follow or risk losing highway funding.

Forty states are in full TEA-21 compliance. This means they prohibit:

  • Any open alcohol container or the consumption of alcohol in vehicles
  • Open alcohol in vehicles in the passenger area including unlocked glove compartments where the driver can easily reach the container
  • All open alcohol containers with at least one-half of one percent of alcohol
  • Open alcohol containers in any vehicle on the public highways including shoulders.

Arkansas and West Virginia are in partial compliance with TEA-21, while Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Missouri, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Virginia allow passengers to drink alcohol. Mississippi is the only state that allows drivers to consume alcohol while driving, as long as they stay under the legal limit for DUI. (Look here for a complete list of state open container laws.)

Keep in mind that laws do change from time to time. Also note that some municipalities have passed local open container ordinances that may be stricter than state law.

Regarding open containers in motor homes, NMA Texas member and frequent e-newsletter contributor Ted Levitt provides the following information, based on his research into the legality of vehicle searches:

There is no separation from the driver’s seating area and the passenger seating area of a motor home, so anyone sitting in the motor home and drinking alcohol while the vehicle is moving may be charged with a violation, depending on your state’s open container law (see above). Driving your friends to the lake in your motor home while they enjoy a sandwich and a beer in back may end up with everyone getting a ticket or arrested.

The legality of searches conducted on any vehicle with questionable “probable cause” will be decided by the courts on a case-by-case basis. With all vehicle searches, based solely on a non-jailable traffic offense, (such as a speeding ticket) the police officer must first be able to justify the search by either an arrest incident to a traffic offense with a justifiable probable cause under either the “In Plain View” doctrine or under some exigent circumstances.

It would be wise to check with your local state police to find out how your state’s open container laws deal with motor homes before you allow a passenger to drink while you are driving your motor home.

The NMA does not condone drunk driving. Even if your state does allow open containers in moving vehicles, it may be wise to abstain. If you do get pulled over, you have no guarantee the officer knows, or cares, what the law says. Let prudence be your guide to a safe and fun Labor Day weekend.

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