Americans hitting the open road this summer may not realize those highways are the battleground in a fiercely contested showdown between the federal government and the states.
The federal government wants the states to pass two laws – a crackdown on repeat drunk drivers and a ban on possession of open alcohol containers in vehicles, even by passengers.
It’s an effort to cut down on drunk driving and the tragic accidents that result. States that refuse to pass the two laws stand to lose millions of dollars in federal highway construction money. So far, only nine states have responded by enforcing both laws.
“They don’t like to be compelled by the federal government to do that – many state legislatures feel it’s intrusive,” Barbara Harsha, executive director of the National Governors Association Highway Safety Representatives, told Fox News.
In the landmark transportation bill of 1998, Congress mandated that states failing to pass the two laws could see money shifted from highway construction accounts into highway safety accounts. Beginning Oct. 1, holdout states will be penalized $370 million.
The penalties would be repeated next year and doubled in 2002 for a possible total of $1.48 billion over three years. The states are especially angry about the open container law since even a passenger in a parked car could be charged.
“It’s, you know, the federal government coming into the inside of your car, that’s really what it boils down to,” Harsha said.
But some say banning an open container of alcohol in a vehicle is just common sense.
“If you allow passengers, that means someone sitting right next to the driver could have an open container, easily pass it to the driver, or they could pass it back and forth. How could the police enforce that? They stop somebody, he doesn’t have the container, the container’s in the passenger’s hand,” Jim Fell, of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), told Fox News.
And Fell says Congress failed to apply enough pressure on the states. That’s because when the states are penalized, the money transferred into highway safety programs can still be used on rebuilding dangerous roads and intersections. Some say without the threat of totally losing that federal money, it’s not likely that all 50 states will pass the controversial laws.