Drink up if you get around by taxi or RV

Correction
03/13/13 -- Sunday’s Road Warrior column should have noted that if the state does not change its open container law, $7 million in federal infrastructure funds would be transferred, as a penalty, to other federal safety programs in Nevada.

In the last three decades, there has been a massive push across the nation to toughen laws against drinking and driving.

It’s working. DUI-related deaths are now less than half of what they were in 1982.

But there have been mistakes along the way. Like, for example, a Nevada law that appears to say it’s perfectly fine if you want to drink a beer while driving a taxicab down the freeway.

Really.

As part of the anti-DUI push, states that didn’t already have them started passing laws making it illegal to have an open container of alcohol in the passenger area of a vehicle.

Nevada’s lawmakers twice tried to do this in the late 1980s, but failed both times. Both Clark and Washoe counties already had local ordinances prohibiting open containers.

Then 1991 rolled around. There was widespread agreement that such a law was needed. The law at the time simply said it was illegal to actually be drinking while driving. This made it pretty easy to just put your beer down or hand it to a passenger if you saw a cop.

But lawmakers didn’t want to forbid passengers in limousines and taxis from drinking. Not in a state full of tourists. And they didn’t want to make it illegal to drink in the back of an RV or a motor home, either. So, after much discussion, they OK’d a new law that said you couldn’t have an open container anywhere in the passenger area of any vehicle, with two exceptions.

“This subsection does not apply to a motor vehicle which is designed, maintained or used primarily for the transportation of persons for compensation, or to the living quarters of a house coach or house trailer,” the law says. That’s the way it has read for the past 22 years.

Do you see the problem?

The feds did. The exception doesn’t say it only applies to passengers.

When federal lawmakers enacted a new transportation funding bill last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration began reviewing state laws governing repeat DUI offenders and open containers, an agency spokeswoman said.

Nevada wasn’t the only state with a problem.

And it is a problem. The state stands to lose $7 million in federal highway safety funds if it doesn’t fix the law.

This is one way the federal government essentially forces states to comply with its wishes. States are free to enact their own laws, but there can be consequences for not following the federal government’s lead.

The NHTSA informally notified state officials of the problem last year. They sent a formal notification in January and followed that up with suggestions for how Nevada could tweak its law last month.

Enter Assembly Bill 21, which adds an exception to the exception that was added in 1991. The new language makes it clear that only passengers in taxis, limos and RVs can drink.

Words matter, folks.

It turns out, the 1991 law was proposed by the Nevada Commission on Substance Abuse Education, Prevention, Enforcement and Treatment. It was backed by a bunch of heavy hitters, including MADD, the Nevada Highway Patrol, and local police departments.

There was much testimony about proposed exemptions, including one that didn’t make it: for street sweepers that might inadvertently pick up empty beer cans.

In the end, lawmakers passed it overwhelmingly, and Gov. Bob Miller signed it.

Though no one seemed to notice the flaw for more than 20 years, then-Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Sader, D-Reno, who supported the law, eerily hinted at what could happen .

He was responding to another lawmaker, who asked about why the open container law shouldn’t apply to folks in a caravan of RVs.

Sader acknowledged the discrepancy, saying, “When you create exceptions, you can have problems.”

Assembly Bill 21 is scheduled for a hearing Thursday before the Transportation Committee.

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