Cooler culture 

In defense of open containers and common sense

The image of our fine state took yet another savage beating in the eyes of the nation—and the world—recently when an Associated Press article concerning the Montana Legislature’s failure to pass a law banning open containers of alcohol in vehicles was picked up by media outlets around the globe.

The article adopts a condescending tone from its lead paragraph, buttressed by remarks from an apparently exasperated Bill Muhs, president of the Gallatin County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Note was taken of Montana’s grade of “F” in a recent examination of states by MADD, and of a jumping casualty rate in alcohol-related crashes.

And to provide context for those unfamiliar with Montana’s sordid history of buck-toothed rebellion, AP reporter Curt Woodward drops the dime on the days of five-dollar speeding tickets and the short-lived era of “reasonable and prudent” speed limits.

Woodward’s and Muhs’ scoldings of the thick-headed denizens of the state spurred other arbiters of cultural evolution into action, including a columnist for the Winnipeg Sun, who penned a piece titled “Doggie Dosha, stay out of Montana.” In recounting the tragi-comic story of a California dog that was hit by a car, shot in the head by a well-meaning state trooper, and then put in a freezer before being discovered several hours later, perfectly healthy save for the gunshot wound to the head and a case of hypothermia, the columnist pleads with the dog to stay out of Montana, as it would fare better with the trigger-happy cops in California than among the crazed, six-pack pounding drivers weaving across the asphalt here.

And to that I say: Enough. You smug MADD men, you snide beat reporters, you whimpering Canuck columnists, enough. Montana remains one of the few states without a comprehensive open-container ban because it makes no sense to ban open containers when the threshold for drunken driving is several beers in several hours.

Think about it. A guy who faces a two-hour drive somewhere in the state (and as far as two-hour drives go, Montana ranks up there with Siberia and L.A. during rush hour) can stop at a bar every half-hour, drink a beer, and resume driving. At the end of two hours and four beers, the guy will register a blood-alcohol content of 0.06 percent, well within the legal, 0.08-percent limit advocated by MADD and the federal government. (BAC content is based on estimates for a 180-pound man; a 150-pound woman who drinks three beers in two hours would register the same 0.06 percent BAC.)

So what other states tell their citizens is that they can have a few drinks and then get behind the wheel, but that they are not to be trusted with the right to have a few drinks while they’re driving—even though the end result of both courses of action is exactly the same. Furthermore, the ban on open containers prohibits passengers in motor vehicles from drinking as well, despite the fact they have as much chance of causing an accident as a person who walks to a neighborhood bar and engages in an all-night drinking binge before stumbling home.

Proponents of open-container bans argue that allowing open containers establishes an attitude of permissiveness, that the mere presence of open alcohol in a vehicle will encourage drivers to imbibe to the point of dangerous impairment. But that vein of logic panders to the same disemboweling mindset that argues against allowing citizens to possess firearms or view pornography. Public safety ultimately boils down to the wisdom of individual choices, and there are those who feel that individuals require an omnibus checklist of “cans” and “cannots” to preserve that safety. Thankfully, those people did not hold sway in this Legislature.

This is not to pooh-pooh those who strive to reduce drunken driving; indeed, theirs is a laudable and essential goal. But achieving that goal need not require treating citizens as if they were preschoolers.

And this Legislature—as maligned as it has been for budget issues as well as the open-container can of worms—came up big in the overall struggle against drunk driving. By a 46-3 vote, the Senate reduced the DUI threshold from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. House Bill 195, which considerably toughens penalties for DUI offenses—particularly those for repeat offenders—passed on a 49-0 vote. And legislation that increases penalties for those who refuse roadside BAC tests and establishes mandatory BAC tests for accidents that result in death or serious bodily injury passed by similarly overwhelming margins.

And is this not a perfect model of respect for the core individual liberties upon which this country is founded? Our state government has told us that we will pay, and pay dearly, in the event we are caught operating a motor vehicle while under the debilitating influence of alcohol, as that condition is defined. The responsibility of avoiding such a course of action rests with us, as individuals, just as the responsibility for not shooting other people with the firearms we legally own rests with us.

Montana’s “cowboy culture” (a phrase Woodward attributes to Muhs in the article) and reputation as a rogue state is not completely off-base; there is a reason that yahoos like the Unabomber, the Freemen, and assorted white-supremacist nutjobs choose Montana to make their stands. But to take heat for a policy that allows citizens to make their own, reasoned choices is unwarranted and, frankly, a little pathetic coming from states and countries who have been led by the nose down the path to Big Brotherhood and needless government intrusion.

So here’s a toast to the 2003 Montana Legislature, and here’s one to a state that doesn’t allow ill political winds to blow unchecked from the mouths of control freaks. As far as I’m concerned, Doggie Dosha is more than welcome here; it’s the pandering dictators of individual behavior who may want to keep us at arm’s length.

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