Conn. Lawmakers Try Again to Ban Open Liquor Containers in Cars

March 6, 2006

For years, legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly that would ban open containers of beer and liquor from cars. And for years it has been defeated.

Proponents are trying again.

“I’m the eternal optimist,” said Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia. “For those of us who are really dedicated to getting drunk drivers off the road, we’ll keep coming back.”

The legislature’s Transportation Committee was scheduled to take up the bill last Friday.

Sen. Biagio “Billy” Ciotto, co-chairman of the committee, said opponents often argue it would be an infringement on their personal freedom.

“I’ve voted for it, I’ve tried to get it through every year,” he said.

This year, he hopes the continued loss of federal highway money will spur lawmakers to act. Since 2001, the Federal Highway Administration has cut off nearly $22.2 million for highway construction and maintenance projects in Connecticut because of the state’s failure to enact an open container law, according to the state Department of Transportation.

The money may still be used for other initiatives, such as public education campaigns.

“Personally, I think it’s wrong that the federal government dangles the carrot in front of you to do this or that,” said Rep. Peter J. Panaroni Jr., who voted against an open container ban last year. “But it also has to be taken into consideration we can ill afford to lose money in the state, especially construction money. We have to look at that very closely.”

Panaroni, D-Branford, said the issue is not as simple as its backers insist.

“The concept of it, I just think, is how far do we go?” he said. “There are questions in general, short of not carrying anything in your car at all.”

Lawmakers last year passed a law that allows motorists to bring home open wine bottles from restaurants.

“There are people who are very concerned that should something like this happen, how is it going to happen when you are stopped?” Panaroni asked. “Different people interpret it differently.”

The legislation would call for a $500 fine for those convicted of carrying an open container of beer or liquor in a motor vehicle.

Stuart Deglin, a Norwich physician whose two children were killed in 1997 by a motorist who told police he was distracted when he took a sip of beer, said he is angry at how hard it is to pass an open container bill in Connecticut. Police determined that alcohol and drugs were not a factor in that accident.

“It upsets us, but we’re not surprised,” he said. “We go through this every session of the legislature. It continues to be very upsetting to us and every other family that lost someone. I truly do not understand this.”

Rep. Lenny Winkler, R-Groton, who has introduced an open container bill for several years, said one reason for the legislation’s failure has been the inability to define exceptions. What about an opened container that has been placed in a car trunk, or the bed of a pickup?

“There’s always discussion about how you would secure an open bottle,” she said. “To me, the argument is hollow, but that’s the argument.”

Janice Heggie Margolis, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, said advocates are not seeking much from the legislature.

“All we’re asking for is that a bottle of wine be put in the trunk, separate from passengers and the driver. That’s all we want,” she said. “The problem is not diligent drivers. The problem is the drunk driver who drives with a bottle of liquor between his legs or on the seat between him and the passenger.”

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