By CHARLES S. JOHNSON
Lee State Bureau
HELENA — Montana voters strongly back a law to ban open containers of alcoholic beverages in motor vehicles, a recent statewide poll commissioned by the Montana Contractors Association for a coalition of groups shows.
The poll found 67 percent of Montana voters support banning open containers, while 28 percent oppose it and 4 percent are undecided. The numbers don’t add to 100 percent because they were rounded off. Support is equally broad among Republicans, Democrats and independents and in different television markets geographically across Montana.
By an even greater margin — 77 percent for vs. 19 percent against — Montanans favor a ban on open containers when told by pollsters that Montana risks losing more than $6 million in federal highway funds to other states if it doesn’t ban open containers. The remaining 3 percent of voters were undecided.
Moore Information, a Portland, Ore., polling firm, conducted the poll for the Montana Contractors Association for a coalition of groups interested in passing open container legislation in the 2005 Legislature. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Although the Legislature has cracked down on drunken driving laws in recent years, attempts to ban open containers of alcoholic beverages have failed. After a prolonged battle in 2003, last year, national newspapers and networks did stories about Montana’s refusal to pass a law. A Los Angeles Times story was headlined: ”Where Six-Packs Still Ride Shotgun.”
Under the current federal highway bill, states like Montana that allow open containers of alcohol are penalized with ”soft sanctions” that require some highway construction dollars to be spent on safety programs. In 2003, $5.6 million of Montana’s federal highway money was diverted into safety programs, mostly safety related construction.
”Montana voters clearly understand what is at stake,” said Cary Hegreberg, executive director of the Montana Contractors Association. ”Open container legislation saves lives, increases highway safety and sustains jobs.”
The Montana Contractors Association is working with a coalition of a number of groups to increase public awareness on the issue. The group includes Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies, the Montana Department of Transportation, local DUI task forces, county attorneys, the Montana Highway Patrol, Gov. Judy Martz’s office, Attorney General Mike McGrath’s office and concerned citizens.
”The national average is 0.62 highway fatalities per million vehicle miles,” said Mike Cooney, executive director of Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies. ”At 1.21, Montana’s rate is twice the national average and the highest in the nation.”
A leading legislative opponent of an open container ban was skeptical about the poll’s objectivity and results.
”If you buy a poll, you usually get the results that you want,” House Judiciary Chairman Jim Shockley,” R-Victor, said in a phone interview. ”Everybody that signed up for that poll (as backers) wanted it to come out that way.”
Shockley quoted Mark Twain, who said, ”There are lies, damn lies and statistics.”.
Here are details of the poll:
The first question said: ”Would you favor or oppose a new state law that would ban open containers of alcoholic beverages, such as beer cans, in motor vehicles?”
It shows 59 percent ”strongly favor” a ban on open containers, while 8 percent ”favor” a ban for a total of 67 percent. On the other side, 19 percent said they ”strongly oppose” and 9 percent said they ”oppose” the ban for a total of 28 percent. The remaining 4 percent didn’t know.
Among Republicans, 70 percent of voters favor a ban on open containers, while 26 percent oppose one. Among Democrats, 66 percent support the ban on open containers, while 28 percent oppose one. Independent voters favor the open-container ban by a 66 to 31 percent margin.
By area, 72 percent of the Billings television market area favors the ban, while 22 percent oppose it. Sixty-eight percent of the Missoula TV market area backs the ban, while 28 percent are against it. Sixty-two percent of the Butte-Helena TV market support this proposed ban, while 33 percent oppose it. In the Great Falls TV market, 65 percent favor the ban, while 33 percent are against it. In the other TV market in the state, 70 percent back the ban, while 24 percent are against it.
The next question was: ”In order to receive federal transportation funds, states are encouraged to have a law that bans open containers of alcoholic beverages in motor vehicles. Because Montana does not have a law banning open containers of alcoholic beverages, it risks losing more than $6 million per year in federal highway funding to other states. After hearing this, do you favor or oppose a new state law that would ban open containers of alcoholic beverages, such as beer cans, in motor vehicles?”
Results of the poll showed 77 percent favor a state ban on open containers — 66 percent ”strongly favor” plus 12 percent ”favor” a ban — when told the state risks losing more than $6 million a year. A total of 19 percent oppose the ban — 14 percent ”strongly oppose” and 6 percent ”oppose” one. Three percent don’t know.