Missouri’s open container law diverts funds to road safety

Since 2001, Missouri has been paying millions in penalties for its refusal to obey a federal law prohibiting passengers in moving vehicles from drinking alcohol. The state’s open container law has cost Missouri $275 million that could have been used to road and bridge construction.

Never mind, the Missouri Department of Transportation says, it needs $825 million to maintain its roads. Though this sounds counterintuitive, Missouri’s non-compliance with the law is a good thing because it is inadvertently saving lives. How is that?

Due to the federal penalties, the money has had to be spent elsewhere, such as on small engineering projects and alcohol awareness programs and measures. Although MoDOT needs the funds, they are quick to concede the penalties that have led to the loss of the designated funds have been a blessing for the state’s transportation system.

The Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century mandates that states who refuse to ban open containers to spend 3 percent of their federal highway construction funds on safety initiatives, and not on new pavement projects.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, the funds can be used for law enforcement purposes, “alcohol-impaired driving countermeasures,” or “hazard elimination” projects.

MoDOT data indicates Missouri’s penalty in the last fiscal year was about $21.4 million. Roughly 25 percent was spent on safety measures and about 75 percent on road projects that eliminate driving hazards.

Diverting spending from highway construction has allowed state workers to install hundreds of miles of median guard cables, which Miller said has “saved hundreds of lives.” Other projects funded by the penalty funding include installing rumble strips on shoulders, enforcing driving laws, funding DWI courts and educating newer drivers. MoDOT claims the diversion of these funds to these transportation safety and enforcement measures has saved hundreds of lives.

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