updated 4/8/2005 4:50:27 PM ET 2005-04-08T20:50:27

Some Montana motorists, the joke goes, measure distances driven by how many beers they can down along the way. But the long-cherished right to have a cold one behind the wheel is about to end.

State lawmakers passed an open-container ban Friday that makes Montana one of the last states to outlaw drinking while driving.

The Montana House approved the bill 76-21 and sent it to Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who has said he will sign it. It takes effect Oct. 1.

Getting used to prohibition
The delay is designed to let Montanans get used to the prohibition, which until now had been found only in cities and towns, not out on the open highway.

Only Mississippi now lacks a state law against open containers, though many cities and counties there also prohibit open containers locally.

While Montana had stood to lose $5 million a year in federal highway funds if it failed to pass the law, the debate focused on balancing safety and personal freedom.

Montana has the highest rate of alcohol-related deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Cultural change
“This is one of those laws that will start the cultural change that we need on the highways of Montana. We hope that just the existence of the law will make a difference,” said Lt. Col. Mike Tooley, deputy chief of the Montana Highway Patrol.

University of Montana sociologist Jim Burfeind said the state’s holdout status was understandable, given the long, lonely drives often required when only 927,000 people live in a state the size of New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio combined.

“We think we’re a very different place than other places and that we don’t have to run by the rules that other people have to in more congested areas,” Burfeind said.

To muster enough support for the bill, supporters accepted what some consider weak penalties for violations. A driver caught with an open container faces a $100 fine, and the offense does not show up on a person’s driving record.

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