Amid a spike in alcohol-related fatalities, CT could ban alcohol in cars this year after failing for decades

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Every few years since at least 1989, Connecticut lawmakers have tried — and failed — to ban driving with an open alcoholic beverage.

In 2008, during what became a four-and-a-half-hour debate on the proposal in the state House of Representatives, members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus warned that the bill could lead to more profiling. racism from the police – and ending the traditions of townspeople sitting in parked cars with friends and sharing beers. The argument forced the bill to be abruptly withdrawn without a vote.

Another year, the bill was again withdrawn amid debate after University of Connecticut House alumni realized the ban could interfere with any wet-weather tailgating for games. Huskies football.

But at the top of a 27-page bill promoted this year by the state Department of Transportation is language that may be the legislative proposal’s best chance of passing and ultimately breaking with a dozen States that do not disallow open containers. .

“No person shall possess an open container of liquor in the passenger area of ​​a motor vehicle while that motor vehicle is on a highway in this state,” according to the multi-faceted bill, which would come into effect. effective October 1 and also includes a controversial provision requiring motorcyclists to wear helmets.

DOT Commissioner Joseph Giulietti told the Transportation Legislative Committee last week that the open container law was being pushed more and more due to the recent increase in alcohol-related deaths on the roads of the Connecticut.

He said the increase followed a national trend, but alcohol-related deaths in Connecticut were “higher than anywhere else.”

“Our numbers aren’t good here in Connecticut,” he said.

Citing data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a DOT spokesperson said there were 249 road deaths in Connecticut, including 94 involving drunk drivers, in 2019. The data show that impaired drivers were involved in 38% of Connecticut’s fatal crashes that year, compared to 28% nationally, according to Josh Morgan, a DOT spokesman.

In 2020, Morgan said preliminary data shows there were 299 fatal crashes in Connecticut, and 118 of those — nearly 40% — involved drunk drivers.

“Alcohol consumption remains the leading cause of death in vehicles,” Giulietti told the committee. “Speeding has increased, the number of accidents has increased.”

During his comments to the transportation committee, Giulietti incorrectly said there were 324 alcohol-related traffic deaths in Connecticut in 2021. Morgan clarified that stat Monday, saying the number referred to the total number of fatal accidents in Connecticut last year. Morgan said the number of fatal crashes involving impaired drivers has not been finalized for 2021.

Although it is illegal for drivers to drink alcohol while operating a motor vehicle in Connecticut, it is legal for passengers 21 and older. The latest open container proposal seemed to have strong support in the Transport Committee.

State officials have traditionally framed the argument in terms of federal money not reaching the state because of the existence of open container freedom. But Giulietti told the committee it was more nuanced. In fact, the transport money is not withheld. Instead, since 2001, $164 million in federal aid — 3% of the total Connecticut receives — has been diverted to educational programs under the Highway Safety Program rather than construction and maintenance. roads.

Giulietti said the expected 38% increase in federal highway construction will also include a 3% diversion to the highway safety account, if lawmakers don’t act this year.

“We still get that money to use for educational programs and other things, but we can’t do the construction that we want to do with it,” he said. “You don’t lose money, but the truth is, you can’t invest the money in the problems you want to solve.”

According to the current wording, passengers in limousines or vehicles driven by hired drivers, as well as people in the living quarters of recreational vehicles will still be able to consume alcohol. Mississippi is the only state where drivers are allowed to drink and drive.

“We’re just too smart a state not to get involved,” said Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield. “I don’t know for life why anyone would be opposed to, in some way, tightening this up. I hate to see Connecticut as an outlier on this.

[email protected] Twitter: @KenDixonCT

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