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Feds pressure, restrict 14 states on open containers

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Last year, the Missouri Department of Transportation installed 63 miles of guard cables in the grassy median of Interstate 70 to cut down on crossover collisions. But the $11.1 million project wasn't carried out by choice.

Until Missouri outlaws open containers of alcohol in motor vehicles, the state remains under federal order to spend 3% of its federal road construction funds each year on traffic safety projects. Thirteen other states are in the same position because they, too, allow passengers to have open containers of alcohol.

The Missouri transportation department has lobbied for a bill to ban open containers so it can spend all of its federal transportation money on construction. But state Sen. Jon Dolan, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, said he doubts a ban will be approved until the federal government threatens to withhold funding.

As it is, "we just have to spend it on safety, which is a worthwhile expense, and the people in their car pools to Mizzou games don't seem to support" a ban, Dolan said, referring to sports fans traveling to the University of Missouri-Columbia.

The federal mandate to ban open containers has been in effect for four years. For the first two years, states without the bans were ordered to divert 1.5% of their federal highway construction funds to safety projects. The level rose to 3% two years ago.

For Missouri, the diversions amounted to slightly more than $5 million in each of the first two years, and about $12 million in each of the two latest years.

Rep. Cynthia Davis sponsored a bill this year that would ban open alcohol containers in cars while still allowing passengers to possess them in limousines, buses and recreational vehicles. House leaders have told her the bill would be considered in March or April at the earliest. The session adjourns in May.

Davis said the bill has not passed before because of opposition by Anheuser-Busch, which is based in St. Louis.

"Anheuser-Busch is a very big contributor to many candidates," Davis said.

John Britton, the brewing company's lobbyist, defends Missouri's current law. The fact that a passenger is enjoying a beer doesn't mean the driver will drink as well, Britton says.

"I don't know what harm a passenger in the back seat can do," he said.

Dolan also is skeptical of those who blame the lack of a ban on Anheuser-Busch.

"It has little to do with A-B and everything to do with the habits and the freedoms of an average Missourian who wants to have somebody in the back of that van maybe drinking, or somebody in the front," Dolan said.

Other states that have refused to change their laws include Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Last year, Tennessee diverted about $11.9 million in federal road construction money, Indiana about $13.5 million, Arkansas about $7.3 million and Alaska about $5.2 million.

In January, the Indiana Senate approved a bill that would ban open containers. Sen. Thomas Wyss, who is sponsoring the bill, said he is not sure it will become law this year.

Wyss said Indiana lawmakers are listening to a minority of people who want to be able to drink while ignoring the majority, who want open alcohol containers banned.