The Benefits and Pitfalls of Strengthening Virginia's Open-container Laws

Report No: 06-R20

Published in 2006

About the report:

This study addressed the conditions on federal highway funding imposed by the federal government in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) and its successor Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU) relating to a state's implementation of a compliant open-container law. Although SAFETEA-LU amended TEA-21 in a number of ways, it did not change the statutory standard for open-container laws established by TEA-21. Non-compliant states have a percentage of their highway construction funds diverted to a safety fund. In this study, the constitutionality of such restrictions was explored and found to be acceptable given similar Supreme Court precedent. Second, the responses of other states to the federal initiatives were determined and assessed for compliance. Third, the efficacy of the federal guidelines in terms of their impact on highway safety was explored. Fourth, Virginia's current open-container law was analyzed with regard to its compliance with the federal mandate. Virginia's open-container law does not comply with the provisions of TEA-21. As a result, 3 percent of Virginia's highway construction funds are diverted from highway construction to safety programs. If Virginia passed a law that satisfied the federal conditions, this transfer would stop. If Virginia does not pass such a law, it cannot avoid the transfer of more than $16 million pursuant to 23 U.S.C.154 for fiscal year 2006. An additional benefit of enacting a stricter open-container statute is that such a law could potentially function as a "back up" charge that might be pressed if a driver was suspected to be driving under the influence of alcohol, but the violation could not be substantiated in a traffic stop. However, there is much debate as to the actual effect of TEA-21-compliant open-container laws on reducing the frequency and severity of alcohol-related traffic crashes.

Disclaimer Statement:The contents of this report reflect the views of the author(s), who is responsible for the facts and the accuracy of the data presented herein. The contents do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, or the Federal Highway Administration. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation. Any inclusion of manufacturer names, trade names, or trademarks is for identification purposes only and is not to be considered an endorsement.


Other Authors

Kimberly M. Mattingly, Jason S. Beaton

Last updated: November 27, 2023

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