By Christopher McCollum
The biggest argument against public drinking is that it leads to mayhem, violence, and eventually death. It is upon this idea that almost every state in America has laws against open containers of alcohol in public. There are eight states that do not have open container laws, but within those states, there are only a few select communities that have not passed local ordinances that prohibit public drinking. The historic district of Savannah, Georgia is one of them, as well as Butte, Montana; the Las Vegas Strip; Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee; The Power and Light District in Kansas City, Missouri, and New Orleans.
In a sort of mind numbing paradox, there are several states (Mississippi, Virginia, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky, Connecticut, Delaware) that allow open containers of alcohol to be in a moving motor vehicle, but do not allow open containers in public. Furthering the incredulous nature of this paradox, Mississippi even allows drivers to drink while operating their vehicle, as long as they remain below the legal limit of .08 BAC. Despite allowing people to drink while driving, it is illegal to drink on a sidewalk in Mississippi, and despite allowing open containers of alcohol in a moving vehicle, the other states also prohibit it.
The laws don’t make much sense, but then again, they oftentimes don’t. Take these gems for example: Up until 2004, it was illegal in North Carolina to practice palmistry or fortune telling unless in a school or church; It is illegal in Virginia to engage in pre-marital sex, under a law titled “Fornication”; in Tennessee carrying skunks into the state is outlawed, and in New Jersey it is illegal to wear a bulletproof vest while committing murder.
So, we have ample reason to believe that certain laws pertaining to open containers are not the only silly ones around, and thus, like other existing silly laws, perhaps they need to be repealed, or at very least modified so that they make more sense. In fact, perhaps it is also time a thorough, nationwide study be undertaken to see what the realistic impact of public drinking is, rather than using outdated and impractical arguments regarding safety and morality.
In some instances, the notion that public safety is being kept in mind with the prevention of open container laws is little more than a sad contradiction. For instance, groups who might lobby against open containers would be quick to point out that Mississippi, which allows people to drink while driving as previously mentioned, has a noticably higher percentage of fatal accidents than other states with comparable populations. However, it must be remembered that Mississippi only allows public drinking if it is within a vehicle, not outside in urban areas. One of these seems to be a more realistic danger than the other; shouldn’t it be treated as such?
When it comes to making more practical decisions about alcohol laws, comparing statistics between local jurisdictions may be what it must come down to. After all, with listings available for cities and districts that allow people of legal age to consume alcohol in public places, perhaps we can develop a suitable argument for or against open containers. Let’s have a look.
In Clark County, Nevada, the home of the “vice paradise” of Las Vegas, alcohol is served in some places 24 hours a day, and consumption is legal in most public, outdoor places. This led to a staggering 11,913 DUI arrests in 1999; only a whopping 0.02% per capita more than Buncombe County, North Carolina, which only serves until 2am, and allows no open containers in public. In other words, Las Vegas suffers only a negligible percentage of more DUI arrests than Asheville, North Carolina.
New Orleans parish had about 1,200 DUI arrests in 2009, which amounts to 0.097% of the population. By comparison, Buncombe County, NC had 1,923 DUI arrests, or 0.84% of the population. This is anomalous, because it begins to show that public drinking doesn’t seem to necessarily equate to drunk driving, which is the primary safety concern for intoxication. Could this simply mean that Buncombe County has abnormally high rates of drunk driving? This notion too is countered by looking at other counties around the country, and comparing them to the locations that allow public drinking. For instance, Lee County, Alabama had 152 DUI arrests in 2008, which equates to 0.11% of their population–a far cry from Buncombe County, but still higher than New Orleans.
Huntington Beach, California had a 0.83% DUI arrest rate among the population in 2009, ranking them alongside Buncombe County and near Las Vegas. Numbers range high and low around the country, but don’t clearly show a correlation between DUI arrests and a lack of open container laws. The question then, is whether or not open container laws should remain on the books, and what should be done to not just crack down on drunk driving, but to prevent drunk driving.
From an economic standpoint, there must be a great incentive for businesses to promote the dissolution of open container laws in certain cities, as they can serve a greater amount of customers without having to turn any away from the door. Furthermore, the tourism appeal would likely provide increased revenue for the entire food and drink industry in the city. Outdoor entertainment would likely increase with the lifted restrictions on public drinking, and the draw of more people to the area would result in greater revenue to bars, restaurants, hotels, and from that, greater tax revenue from the increased volume of paying visitors to the area.
To curb drunk driving, education must be the issue that is focused upon the most, as opposed to prohibitive laws that politicians use to legislate morality. While there may be a slight or temporary positive net affect in enforcing a particular train of thought or course of actions, a greater deterrent to drunk driving and alcohol irresponsibility can likely be found in greater education. Rather than teaching the evils of alcohol, it would make more sense to teach the social and economic impact of alcohol at an earlier age, so that alcohol does not become a secret, forbidden fruit, but instead a normal piece of society that special attention and care should be paid to. With responsibility taught from an earlier age, it would seem that within a single generation, alcohol related incidents such as DUIs should fall across the board.
However, with such opposition to every aspect of alcohol, and especially to issues regarding minors, it seems unlikely for the time being that such a path will be taken. Instead, police departments will continue to launch holiday crackdowns on DUIs in a fruitless attempt to cure a symptom rather than a problem, and politicians will continue to oppose public drinking in the name of keeping our society safe. Until these minds are opened and alternative belief systems are brought into play, we may never come out from behind the puritanical curtain that has enshrouded America since the Temperance movement began gaining momentum with each violent ax blow of Carrie A. Nation.