It may surprise you to read that this question does not have a simple yes-or-no answer.
North Carolina’s open container law allows car and truck passengers to carry and drink certain types of alcoholic beverages. Drivers may never drink while behind the wheel. Nor may they hit the road with a blood alcohol concentration that is above the legal limit. But drivers can have some types of alcoholic beverages in unsealed bottles within their reach.
My personal injury and wrongful death law firm colleagues and I urge everyone to keep booze out of their cars, but North Carolina lawmakers have enshrined exceptions to that best practice in the General Statutes.
Why North Carolina Enforces an Open Container Law at All
Quite simply, drinking and driving kills. When it doesn’t kill, it often maims. Plus, the physical act of consuming alcohol from a bottle, can or cup while driving creates a distraction that sets the stage for a deadly crash regardless of whether the drinker is very intoxicated.
This concerns us because, as you may have surmised, my North Carolina personal injury law firm colleagues and I only represent persons injured by drunk drivers. We never represent the NC drunk drivers themselves. And we’ve seen just how serious the injuries caused by senseless drunk drivers are
During 2018, the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles recorded 11,345 crashes in which at least one driver was under the influence of alcohol. A total of 411 people died in those wrecks. Another 7,602 people suffered injuries that were serious enough to require medical care.
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The DMV also keeps a tally of crashes that are caused in part or whole by the driver becoming distracted by another person in the vehicle. A total of 1,465 wrecks fell into this category during 2018, resulting in 2 deaths and leaving 536 people seriously injured.
No publicly available breakdown indicates how many of those distracting passengers were drinking at the time, but anyone who has served as a designated driver understands how unruly an inebriated friend or family member can be.
When North Carolina Allows Open Containers for Car Passengers
The state prohibits all open containers of all types of alcohol in commercial vehicles at all times. This ban covers buses, tractor-trailers and construction vehicles.
At the same time, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety (DPS), passengers in private cars can possess and consume beer, malt liquor, ale, hard lemonade, hard seltzer, table wine and champagne in a moving or parked vehicle. An unaccompanied driver in a private vehicle is also allowed to have an open container of alcohol that is below 34 proof (less than 17 percent A.B.V.) as long as the driver has not consumed any of the beverage.
The practical effect of these rules is that North Carolina bans the transport of open containers of hard liquor and fortified wine in the passenger area of a motor vehicle. For the purposes of enforcement, an container of alcohol is considered open when the seal is broken. Cups, glasses and thermoses fall under the definition.
Further, the DPS notes that
“Passenger area of a motor vehicle” means the area designed to seat the driver and passengers and any area within the reach of a seated driver or passenger, including the glove compartment. In the case of a station wagon, hatchback or similar vehicle, the area behind the last upright back seat is not considered part of the passenger area.
In short, a driver who can grab an opened bottle of liquor without coming to complete stop is in violation of North Carolina’s open container law. Despite that specific prohibition, passengers and stone-cold sober drivers can have access to a cracked beer or a Solo cup of wine.
Though, again, doing precisely what is legal is not always a good idea.