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So Can I Drink In My Car Or Not?

I really enjoy getting emails from everyone with various questions and or concerns.  The following I received recently and did not think too much about my answer, believing that pretty much everyone was aware of what the law was regarding this.

Every Tuesday a group of retired CHP guys meet and shoot the breeze on just about every topic imaginable. Most of the time it’s regarding aging body parts that no one really wants to hear about.  As part of my preparing for my next column, I occasionally will seek some of the group’s knowledge.  Not a lot of knowledge left with this group, especially since I joined… but … moving on.  I was surprised that a few of them were not certain as to the correct answer.  The email reads:

I have heard arguments both ways, even among law enforcement and store personnel.  What is the law concerning open containers of non-alcoholic “beer” like O’Doul’s in a vehicle? Can they legally be purchased by someone under 21? Some say it’s like buying mouthwash (alcohol content) and some say it’s an “alcoholic” drink. What’s the scoop?

Just to make certain that my memory had not failed me, I contacted my friend Robert Farrar, Alcohol Beverage Control district supervisor.  Bob confirmed my understanding.  As long as the beverage has less than ½ of 1 percent alcohol (0.5%), as do the non-alcoholic beverages in question, you can have it as an open container in a vehicle and it can be purchased by anyone.

This is one of those topics that can have various groups up in arms.  I can recall when I was young and “Near Beer” was that mystery drink.  But then, that was when I would pretend to be smoking one of my candy cigarettes.  Times have changed, and I’d like to think for the better when it comes to health-related issues.  And I’ve never smoked a real cigarette in my life.

As long as we are discussing open-container laws, here is what the vehicle code states.

No driver shall have in his or her possession, while in a motor vehicle upon a highway or on lands, any bottle, can, or other receptacle, containing any alcoholic beverage that has been opened, or a seal broken, or the contents of which have been partially removed.

No passenger shall have in his or her possession, while in a motor vehicle upon a highway or on lands, any bottle, can, or other receptacle containing any alcoholic beverage that has been opened or a seal broken, or the contents of which have been partially removed.

As with a couple of vehicle code sections, there are exceptions.  Once again these exceptions may raise concerns, but my role is to provide you, the public, with what the law allows and not my opinion.  Anyway, the exception does not apply to the living quarters of a housecar or camper.  The vehicle code is very specific as to where alcohol can be transported and or consumed in a vehicle.  While in a housecar (motorhome, 5th-wheel trailer) the alcoholic container cannot be accessible to the driver or the driver’s area.

Now, I know I just got done stating that my role is to provide factual information and not opinion.  But: When did it become that important or necessary that we have to consume alcoholic beverages as passengers on our trips to Disneyland and while riding as a passenger in the motorhome?  When a collision occurs on the highway, clearer heads generally prevail.  I would prefer that those who are impaired by alcohol are not the ones that are making livesaving decisions.

After completing that last paragraph, I spoke with a friend to further discuss this issue. I had a moment of hesitation as to how much the public needs to know as far as what’s lawful and what’s not.  After our discussion, I believe that providing the public with true and correct information is what I need to be concerned with and believing that given that information, the proper and moral choices will be made.  Now, please go out and enjoy the ride.

Monty Hight is a retired California Highway Patrol officer and public information officer. He is the North State AVOID Campaign’s public information officer. He lives in Redding. More information on AVOID can be found here.