Liquor and Liberties


Montana's legislators refused to pass a law banning open containers of liquor in cars. "I think there's still perhaps some carry-over from people whose view is their individual rights are being trampled on," said Bill Muhs, president of a Montana chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in the Washington Post. Wonder where they got the silly idea that their rights are being trampled on? Montana has already lowered its blood alcohol limit, lowered its speed limits and increased penalties for drunk driving. Why not just outlaw alcohol and be done with it? When will our national spasm of Victorian morality end?

NEXT: Bullish on Iraqi Democracy

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Brian:

    If it’s just one more tool to coerce people, then why not outlaw freakin’ alcohol. The more tools the better, right?

    And Ig, anyone who consumes alcohol should then be arrested because they “might” drive. Prior restraint is, therefore, a good thing, right?

    The correct response in all this is to not give people 3 and 4 and 5 and 10 chances to drive drunk. One shot, lose your license. Forever. Drive anyway, go to jail. Get out of jail and do it again, longer jail. I’m betting that if you look at stats, you won’t find too many “first-time DWI’s” involved in fatalities. These guys have been arrested time and again and allowed back on the road after paying a fine that apparently doesn’t take beer money out of their pocket. Freakin’ HAMMER them.

    And the guy with the open container, having a cold one after a long day isn’t the one I’m worried about. It’s the guy who’s been at the bar for several hours and many cocktails, then drives home. Why not stop him coming out of the parking lot and give him a breathalyzer?

    People don’t do things if the consequences are greater than they are prepared to handle.

    I’ll give ya “straw man”. Right to the freakin’ moon. And yer little dog, too.

  2. “Yes, in a perfect world, drivers would never take a drink from one of their passenger’s beers and I would agree with you that such a law is not required, but come on now, do you really think it’s O.K. for your teen age son or daughter to be driving a car when all of his/her friends (of legal drinking age, of course) are getting sloshed in the passenger seats? Do you really think that the driver of a car – regardless of his/her age – is not going to imbibe when everyone else in the car is?”

    I think exactly that. If an officer pulls a car over and people are drinking then automatically test the driver’s BAC. This will settle any problems of handing off cans to passengers or whatever and will also show drivers that they can’t get away with drinking and driving just because passengers can drink.
    Make it so if the driver lets people drink in the car then he can be subject to a breathlyzer test at any time.

  3. Impairment does not begin immediately when consumed. Alcohol impairment comes from it’s effects on the central nervous system. To do this it must first clear the digestive system and get there via the bloodstream. This takes about 10-20 min. I get in a car after work and sip on a beer during my 7 min car ride home, no impairment occurs while driving. Arguments can be made for why this shouldn’t be allowed (what if I get stuck in unexpected traffic?), but misleading catch phrases (MADD’s “impairment begins with the first sip”) don’t cut it.

    As for the Trooper visit, I’ve witnessed it. However, the guilty party wasn’t a drunk, it was a guy who fell asleep at the wheel after working a double-shift. Tired drivers kill more than those drivers in the 0.08 to 0.1 range, and yet MADD has invested millions into trying to get this standard dropped at the local, state and fed level. Why? I’m guessing they don’t think the American public is ready to hear about “Mandatory Spinal Taps” to determine melatonin levels in the cerebral spinal fluid, yet. Yet.

    As for MADD trying to target drivers who may transfer their beverage to a buddy when pulled over, why are they against an exemption in this rule for passengers in cabs (ex. Savannah, GA)?

  4. Looks like we have quite a few pre-crime unit supporters here. Brian’s and Ig’s arguments should be usefully extended to any situation. What about ski masks and chainsaws in cars ?
    OK not very funny.

  5. I always love crossing the border in to Idaho or Montana and cracking a brew while driving…

  6. Pre-crime? That’s one concept that scares the crap out of me. However,we routinely accept laws that could, I suppose, be lumped into that kind of a category. For example, we don’t allow 7 year olds to drive or own guns. Why? Because they can’t handle the responsibility and they might just end up killing themselves and/or others. There’s no certainty that they actually will do anything to cause harm, but we assume that there’s a high probability that they will and we pass laws to lessen that possibility. Likewise, the open beverage laws are base on probability. If a passenger in a car is drinking, it’s a reasonable assumption that the driver will be drinking too. If the driver drinks, there’s a reasonable assumption that he/she will have some impairment of driving ability/judgement. These assumptions are based on human experience. Yes there’s no guarantee that anything bad will happen and yes some people can drink beer while they drive and live to tell the tale (I only hope they’re not on the roads I drive on), but our experience as a society tells us that there is a high probability that if you drink and drive, you’re going to have problems. In this case where the supposed “rights” that are given up are so trivial and the potential gain in public safety is so great, I can’t see what the problem is. You want to drink yourself blind? Do it at home or in a bar or come over to my house and we’ll try some of my home brewed beer. Just don’t put anyone else in danger. You don’t have that “right”.

  7. Years ago when I lived in St Louis the legislature debated what was dubbed the “peanut butter sandwich” law. The Anheuser Busch lobbiest convinced the lawmakers that handling a beer while driving (assuming you weren’t intoxicated) was no more dangerous than eating a sandwich and driving. Another opponent were the Mizzou alumnae who lived in St Louis and liked to hire a bus, loaded with beer, for trips to Columbia on game days.

    The law was not passed.

  8. Brian,

    The 7 year-old analogy fails on the grounds that 7 year-olds are not fully enfranchised. Paternalism is okay when applied to kids. The logical extension of your “probability” argument is a nightmare.

    That said, I’m glad Brian stated his view, because it’s not necessarily “Victorian morality” against drinking in general that enables such overreaching (although it may drive it) but more arguments such as Brian’s, and thus those are the arguments that require addressing.

  9. fyodor – the fact that 7 year olds aren’t fully enfranchised has nothing to do with it. Experience has shown that they are likely to cause harm if they have access to guns or cars, thus we prohibit it. Sure you can argue that they aren’t mature enough, etc. to handle these things, but the essential point is that all of these arguments are based on the experience of the probable outcome when kids get access to this stuff. After all, when we judge that someone isn’t mature enough to do something, aren’t we making that judgement based on experience and probability? Another example: The legal drinking age was raised from 18 to 21 across the country. Why? Because experience proved that 18 year olds were likely to have bad outcomes when they had access to alcohol. You may say that’s paternalistic, but it’s also REALISTIC based on experience and probability.

  10. Brian – I don’t think anybody here is arguing for the right to drink and drive. But i should have the right to keep almost anything i want in my car, and i include the almost just so people dont come up with gotcha boundary-condition items like radioactive waste etc, as long as it doesnt endanger others or prevent their pursuit of happiness etc. Your probability arguments, though they sound commonsensical, can easily be extended to encompass fantastic situations – dont drive to a bar, dont drive with somebody who’s been to a bar in your car – who knows. Doesn’t the hyper-proliferation of such laws bother you ?

  11. There’s only about 300 people in Montana. You could probably drive drunk all day and not run into anything except a barbwire fence.

    But I guess the anti-drinking lobby is worried this might move over to North Dakota, where there’s tons more people.

  12. Why the can of beer? What about the two previously opened bottles of mixers that you are taking to a potluck? What about the recorked bottle of wine? That’s, according to the law, an open container, and it’s a pain in the ass to prop up recorked wine in the trunk.

  13. The ONLY issue here should be, “Is the driver a danger to others.” If so, severe penalties. If not, so what?

  14. There’s unquestionably a national spasm of Victorian morality going on (witness the fine senator from Pennsylvania who wants to outlaw any kind of sex that he doesn’t approve of), but that’s not what’s at issue here. These laws are not aimed at people who drink; they’re aimed at people who drink AND drive. Sure, let people get as sloshed as they want, but once they get behind the wheel and start posing a danger to everyone else, it’s no longer a matterof individual rights, it’s a matter of public safety.

  15. but Steve!

    let’s say the sensibilities of a passer by get insulted by the selection of alcohol in the vehicle? no, prohibition of anything that potentally could insult someone is the only way to go.

    wait a sec. no. nevermind.


  16. There is a legitmate public interest in keeping people from drinking alcohol while driving. Intoxication – no matter how slight – impairs one’s abilty to drive safely and turns a car into a potential deadly weapon. To derride attempts to control drunk driving as being examples of “Victorian morality” is asinine. There is no “right” to drink and drive. Your “right” to get intoxicated ends when it puts others at risk.

  17. Brian, Brian, Brian. Been to the Sean Hannity school of strawmen have you? The dogooders want to make it illegal for a PASSENGER to possess an open container, not the DRIVER.

  18. The head of Mothers etc. is named Bill Muhs. So is Montana hiding advances in biotechnology or liberal gay adoption laws?

  19. Offhand, I’d imagine the thought process isn’t “Oh no! No one can drink in cars!” but “It’s way too easy for a drinking driver to pass the beer to his buddy when the cop pulls him over”.

    Given that my father used the same trick throughout his highschool days, and never once got busted for drinking underage, since his “legal” buddy always had the beer, I’d imagine it’s a real risk.

    From what I remember of my high school and college days “Dude! Hold me drink! Here come the cops!” is a quick and easy way to dodge the law.

    Given that the law is aimed to prevent people from driving while drunk, I’m afraid I simply don’t see anything to get terribly excited about.

  20. “Intoxication – no matter how slight ”

    A self-contradictory statement, it can mean whatever you want it to mean. Therefore, it’s BS.

  21. Hal and Brian, these open container laws have little to do with intoxicated driving. These are enforced when a driver passes the blood-alcohol test and is not drunk.

    In New Joisey, we have open container laws AND mandatory recycling. Driving your recyclables to the recycling center as required by law is an open container violation if you drive a van, hatchback, station wagon, etc. The vehicle need not even be driven on a street, merely operated, whatever that means.

    No, these open container laws are designed to both act as a prior restraint and to still arrest those not quite drunk enough to be drunk drivers.

  22. Steve – the examples of “Victorian Morality” cited in the original post – lowered blood alcohol limits, lowered speed limits and increased penalties for drunk driving – are all targeted at DRIVERS, not passengers. Thus my scorn for the comparison.

    Yes, in a perfect world, drivers would never take a drink from one of their passenger’s beers and I would agree with you that such a law is not required, but come on now, do you really think it’s O.K. for your teen age son or daughter to be driving a car when all of his/her friends (of legal drinking age, of course) are getting sloshed in the passenger seats? Do you really think that the driver of a car – regardless of his/her age – is not going to imbibe when everyone else in the car is?

  23. |”Intoxication – no matter how slight ”
    |A self-contradictory statement, it can mean
    |whatever you want it to mean. Therefore, it’s

    Obviously, you’ve never gotten drunk. Don’t clutter.

  24. Brian:

    There are laws against underage drinking, so the need to prevent teenagers from imbibing while driving is moot.

    I reiterate from my first post….”THE ONLY THING AT ISSUE IS THIS: ‘IS THE DRIVER IMPAIRED AND A DANGER TO OTHERS?’ Simple yes/no fits here. If we had severe penalties for those driving under the influence-like, you get no warning, just permanent license revocation for conviction-all this becomes a non-issue.

  25. hmm… I have a new phrase to use: ” Sean Hannity school of strawmen”… I like that… think i’ll use it to a “conservative in denial” friend of mine later on today (he’s not completely Hannitized, as he still thinks he is in the middle)………..

  26. Steve-1 – “…the need to prevent teenagers from imbibing while driving is moot.” Hardly. The mere presence of a law does not in any way guarantee that people will abide by it (just ask any murderer or tax cheat). The point is that the open container law is one more deterrent, one more tool for soceity to use to coerce (all laws are coercive, aren’t they?) people into behaving in a responsible way. Common sense says that such a law (with proper exemptions for people returning recyclables, of course)serves the public interest.

  27. All of you who clammor for the “right” to operate a vehicle and satisfy your need for consumption of alcohol (or whatever other stimulant you choose)under the guise that you’re innocent until it is proven that you are a danger to others neglects a few simple facts…from the moment you begin to consume the intoxicant, your judgement becomes immediately impaired, so the next sip is easier to rationalize, and the next even easier. Unfortunately the evidence necessary to prove someone is “a danger to others” is too often gathered at the scene of a tragedy in which the wreckage of vehicles and innocent lives are the primary indicator to prior wrongdoing. It is at that point moot to prove or disprove the “value” of your right to “enjoy” alcohol while operating a vehicle. I am not a prude, nor am I “Hannitized”, I enjoy a good dark beer quite often. I simply fail to see the value of combining that activity with driving. I suspect you all would be wailing a different song if you were awakened in the middle of the night by a State Trooper to come and identify the body of a loved one who happened to cross paths with a fellow motorist who failed the all to common “am I a threat to others yet” road applied litmus test.

    Bravo, Brian…I’ve got your 6!


  28. drf:

    While I would happily drink wine from a bottle with a screw-on top or even from a box, my wine-snob girlfriend would throw my sorry ass out onto Prospect Ave. so fast it would make my head spin. As for sealing with oleo…oleo is heresy. Brick cheese…? You might be on to something.

    Jim, I apologize. But you need to do something about that sister and her husband….

    Steve “”, I’m pretty sure I copyrighted “Steve” forever and always.

  29. We commited the open alcohol violation just last weekend. My wife, myself, our newborn daughter and her parents all drove back from my sister-in-law’s place (for Easter) with a re-corked bottle of wine in the car – as J.C. pointed out it’s pretty hard to put that in the trunk securely. My wife, who was driving, had not one drop to drink (she’s breastfeeding the baby). So technically she could have been liable for a hefty fine and the ‘alcohol education’ classes mandated by the courts (a friend of mine likes to refer to it as ‘drunk tech’) for having done something that cannot be reasonably construed as harmful to anyone.

    I understand the argument about probability, but I think the range of non-threatening behavior is large enough (and occurs frequently enough) that it is unfair to make a general law that impacts the driver as a restriction on the PASSENGER’s behavior. It also assumes no one is responsible enough to be a designated driver. I’ve been in that situation a few times (where I was the driver) or with others who volunteered and the remaining passengers were able to drink in the car without enticing the d.d. into the same behavior. If you really believe people cannot be trusted to do this then you really would have to advocate a ban on alcohol to prevent drunk driving.

    For those who argue the ‘just one drop’ impairs your driving line, while this may be technically correct (leaving aside the 10 or 20 minutes for it to impact your nervous system), this zero tolerance line of reasoning shows how ridiculous it can become to focus on one issue with respect to a larger, more complex issue like driving safety. Lots of other things are being shown to impact people’s ability to drive as much if not more than a few drinks of alcohol: driving while tried, for example. Using cell phones, eating and/or drinking (non-alcoholic beverages), tuning your radio and talking to the passengers all have the ability to reduce your capacity to drive a car safely. With the possible exception of the cell phone issue, no one is planning on banning or totally eliminating these behaviors to reduce accidents. Further, even with the cell phone opponents, no on elevates these equally dangerous behaviors to the status of mortal sin accorded to drunk driving. Since all risk cannot be eliminated, the only thing we can do as reasonable people is establish ‘acceptable’ limits, which is what the Blood Alcohol Level definition of drunk driving does. Since significant reductions in automotive accidents have not occured from reducing BALs from .10 to .08, we’re obviously reaching the point of diminishing returns and it would be more productive to focus on other possible dangerous behaviors than trying to prevent everyone from having one drink with dinner and driving home afterwards.

  30. Re-corking a bottle of wine for transport? Why would you not finish the bottle in the first place? Not only is it heretical (or so my wine snob girlfriend tells me) to open a bottle of wine and not finish it, it’s bad form to take a partial bottle of wine to any gathering-according to people who know manners and stuff (I don’t happen to be one, but that’s what “they” say).

  31. greetings!

    steve, don’t you guyz up in cheezland simply screw the top back on the wine? maybe seal it with some oleo or brick cheez???

    happy onion day,

  32. Laws such as these are passed, not so much to enhance public safety, as to enhance revenue. Revenue for the various states and revenue for MADD. That organization long ago achieved its original aim, but continues to exist by branching out. To get more money, something must be controlled.

  33. Glen,

    Sad to say I happen to agree. It gets passed though because the proponents manage to convince enough people that it is somehow addressing the problem at hand.


    I was taking the wine bottle home from dinner, not to dinner. It was full when I brought it. Normally it would be rude to take it with you, I recognize, but neither my sister or brother in law drink wine. I brought it for myself mostly. As far as not finishing it, generally that would not be a problem. However with a month old baby at home who gets me up at all hours of the night I do not want to have to fight to regain consciousness through an alcohol-induced sleep as opposed to just being naturally tired. Maybe when she’s sleeping through the night my normal drinking habits will return. 😉

  34. Methinks Brian and his control-freak cohorts have mistaken this for the anti-reason website, …

  35. Brian – your reasoning is not uncommon, i’ve heard it plenty times before. If we didn’t have laws punishing it, do you really think we’d have an epidemic of 7- year-olds toting guns or driving cars? The problem I have with the “experience has shown” line of argumentation is that it is too vague. For laws to be followed, reasonable people must perceive them as just and practical, not just feel-good. And society must be willing to deal with the small number of people who can’t be reached by any law. I am very unhappy with the designs that allow the cop to hunt for any violation. “Well, he’s not drunk, but i just know he will be drinking, so let me see what i can find to preempt that.” Judging by the number of empties I collect off my roadfront, West Virginia’s container law hasn’t done a darn thing to stop drinking in cars. A society that has such an anally retentive approach to alcohol, need not be surprised that many people can’t handle it responsibly.

  36. EMAIL:
    DATE: 01/25/2004 03:49:20
    A coward mistakes oppression for peace.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.