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Open Container Laws And
Alcohol Involved Crashes

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DOT HS 809 426

Some Preliminary Data

April 2002

Technical Documentation Page
Executive Summary
Purpose of Section 154
Open Container Law Incentives
Open Container Law Conformance Criteria
Status of Conformance: October 2000
Evaluation of the Effects of Open Container Laws

Public Opinion Concerning Open Container Laws
Appendix A: Data Tables

Table 1: Summary of Previous Open Container Laws In the First Four States to Enact Laws to Conform with TEA-21 Requirements

Figure 1: Percent of All Fatal Crashes That Were Alcohol-Involved: Six-Month Period After Enforcement Began Compared to the Same Period in the Previous Year

Figure 2: Nighttime Hit-and-Run Crashes: Six-Month Period After Enforcement Began Compared to the Same Period in the Previous Year

Figure 3: Percent of All Fatal Crashes That Were Alcohol-Involved

Figure 4: Percent of Residents Who Believe Their States Should Have An Open Container Law


This report presents the results of a study conducted for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to assess the highway safety effects of laws that prohibit open containers of alcoholic beverages to be located in the passenger compartment of motor vehicles operated on public roadways. These laws are commonly referred to as Open Container laws. 

Purpose of Section 154

The TEA-21 Restoration Act added Section 154 to Chapter 1 of Title 23, United States Code (U.S.C.), to reduce alcohol-impaired driving, a serious national public safety problem. Nearly 1.4 million people have died in traffic crashes in the United States since 1966, the year the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act was passed. During the late 1960s and early 1970s more than 50,000 people lost their lives each year on our nation's public roads and more than half of the motorists killed had been drinking. Traffic safety has improved considerably since that time: the annual death toll has declined to about 40,000, even though the numbers of drivers, vehicles, and miles driven all have greatly increased. The improvements in traffic safety are reflected in the change in fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled: The rate fell from 5.5 in 1966 to 1.5 in 1998 (FARS-Fatality Analysis Reporting System-98), a 73 percent improvement. When miles traveled are considered, the like­li­hood of being killed in traffic in 1966 was more than three times what it is today.

Despite the significant improvements in traffic safety during the past two decades, an average of more than 115 people still die each day from motor vehicle crashes in the United States. In addition to the human costs, the economic losses from crashes are estimated to be more than $150 billion annually, including $19 billion in medical and emergency expenses, $42 billion in lost productivity, $52 billion in property damage, and $37 billion in other crash-related costs (FARS-98). It is estimated that approximately 40 percent of fatal crashes involve a drinking driver and 29 percent of the drivers who die in crashes have blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of 0.10 percent or greater.

Drinking and driving laws and the efforts of law enforcement personnel have contributed to the substantial decline in the incidence of alcohol-involved crashes (Stuster & Burns, 1998). The enactment and enforcement of uniformly strong Open Container laws provides another potential means to help reduce drinking and driving, and could lead to further reductions in the numbers of alcohol-involved crashes. Previous research on the relationship between Open Container laws and traffic safety is limited; however, there is evidence that, from a traffic safety perspective, the most dangerous form of alcohol-consumption is drinking in a vehicle (Ross, 1992). For example, a study of drivers who were arrested for DWI in San Diego, California, found that more than half of the violators had consumed alcohol in their vehicles soon after purchasing it from liquor stores, convenience stores, or gasoline minimarts.2 The study found that the incidence of alcohol drinking in cars was nearly three times greater when the beverages were purchased at gas stations, compared to all other outlets (Segars & Ryan, 1986; Wittman, 1986). Similarly, a study of DWI offenders in Santa Fe County, New Mexico found that 37 percent of the offenders who bought package liquor prior to arrest bought their alcohol at a drive-up window, compared to 14 percent at a convenience/drug store. Further, the offenders who bought at a drive-up window were 67 percent more likely to have been drinking in their vehicle prior to arrest, and 67 percent more likely to be problem drinkers, than those who bought package liquor elsewhere (Lewis, Lapham, & Skipper, 1998).

In addition to problem drinkers, officers report that underage youth exhibit a preference for drinking in vehicles. The danger asso­ciated with underage drinking and driving is compounded by a tendency to con­sume all of the alcoholic beverage available (because usually it cannot be stored). Other factors, including a lack of driving experience and skill, exacerbate this problem.