Missouri Gave Up $370 Million In Highway Construction Funds To Let Passengers Drink Booze
As a penalty for ignoring federal safety laws, Missouri has diverted millions of dollars in road construction funds to safety programs. But critics say the state's open container policies make roads more dangerous.
When you drive along I-70, the giant strip of interstate that splits Missouri into north and south, you pass a host of safety measures — rumble strips, guard cables and drunk driving warnings seemingly every few miles.
The signs make it look like Missouri made a big commitment to safety. In fact, most of these measures are actually a penalty for Missouri allowing open alcohol containers in vehicles.
Unlike most of the country — and despite evidence on roadway safety — the state lets passengers drink in moving vehicles.
This unusual policy comes at a cost beyond the added risks on roads. An investigation by KCUR found that, since 2001, Missouri has given up roughly $370 million in highway construction funds for failing to comply with federal safety policies.
Open containers on roads
In 1998, Congress established federal standards prohibiting open containers of alcohol, as part of the wide-ranging "Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century." Safety researchers have found that enforcement of open container restrictions reduces drinking and driving by 17%.
“The whole idea behind no open containers is actually to reduce distraction, drinking, and [it’s] very difficult to determine whether it’s the passenger or the driver,” says Tom Greenfield, scientific and executive director of the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group.
However, Missouri and several other states continued to allow open containers. So under federal law, they are consequently required to divert a percentage of construction funds from the National Highway Performance Program and the Surface Transportation Block Grant program to fund safety initiatives.
“It’s an interesting dilemma, because it does take money away from what I’ll call our everyday road and bridge projects,” says John Nelson, assistant to state highway safety and traffic engineer for the Missouri Department of Transportation.“But it does still get spent on the roadway through those safety improvements.”
Over the last few years, Missouri has diverted anywhere from 1.5-3% of its construction money for safety programs, according to the Missouri Department of Transportation.
Currently, this penalty sits at 2.5% — about about $22.7 million per year.
Around $17 million of that goes to infrastructure improvements like guard cables, shoulders, rumble strips and friction treatments. Nelson explains this funding pays for most of the safety features on major roadways like I-70.
The remaining $5.7 million is used for behavioral campaigns, primarily DWI enforcement and DWI paid media.
Federal crash data suggest that this additional safety spending may have helped to improve safety on Missouri roadways — even beyond the positive trends seen across the country.
Between 2001 and 2019, traffic fatalities across the country have decreased by 14%. But during the same time, traffic fatalities in Missouri decreased by nearly 20%, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Drunk driving in Missouri
While Missouri doesn’t allow drivers to drink, experts say allowing open containers invites a number of problems related to roadway safety.
“The safety improvements are saving lives, but then you also have to also be able to think about what impact is the policy itself having on causing those behaviors in the first place,” Nelson says.
Advocates point to data that indicates Missouri is falling behind other states in reducing drinking and driving. Polling by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention released in 2018 found that 2.2% of Missouri adults said they had driven after drinking too much, higher than the national rate of 1.7%.
CDC data also shows that, as of 2018, Missouri had an alcohol-impaired driving death rate of 3.9 deaths per 100,000, compared to 3.2 per 100,000 nationally.
It's not just open containers where Missouri stands as an outlier. No sobriety checkpoints have been conducted by the Missouri State Highway Patrol since 2017, after such checkpoints were defunded by Missouri lawmakers.
Spokesman Lt. Eric Brown told KCUR in an email that the Highway Patrol continues remove intoxicated drivers from roadways through patrols and DWI saturations.
However, Greenfield and other safety experts say the primary purpose of checkpoints is to serve as a deterrent.
The group Mothers Against Drunk Driving says that Missouri should be doing more to protect residents from the hazards of drinking and driving — starting with enforcing open container policies and bringing back sobriety checkpoints.
“Right now, Missouri is behind in our impaired driving prevention, as far as what our officers are able to do out on the road,” says regional executive director Allyson Summers.
Even fewer safety measures ahead?
Despite concerns from safety advocates, some state lawmakers want even less enforcement of drinking and driving laws.
This year, State Rep. Justin Hill, a Republican representing Missouri’s 108 district in St. Louis County, proposed a constitutional amendment that would ban sobriety checkpoints. The idea was opposed by the Missouri Peace Officers Association, the state’s largest law enforcement organization.
“Taking away tools, that in the past have shown results, would only provide those who commit a crime or violations another avenue of avoiding apprehension,” said MPOA executive director Dale Schmidt in testimony.
The bill, HJR11, did not advance beyond committee. Hill, who is a former police detective, did not respond to interview requests from KCUR.
Though traffic crashes have generally decreased in recent decades, the pandemic brought a sudden increase that safety advocates say makes drunk driving prevention even more urgent.
Initial reporting by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shows that crashes in the first quarter of 2021 were 10% higher than during the same period in 2020.
Summers says those recent trends and decisions by Missouri lawmakers are causing roadway safety to go “backwards.”
“We want to move forward,” Summers says. “And we want to encourage safety for all Missourians.”