Can You Legally Drink in an Uber?
Just in time for the holidays, car services are raising yet another novel question of law: Legally, can you drink in an Uber? The answer is unclear in 40 jurisdictions due to open container exceptions that exist in many states. While regulations vary by state, throughout the U.S., riders are generally permitted to drink in commercial vehicles that are purchased for hire—although drivers have the option to refuse a patron’s service at their discretion. Uber circumvents state laws regulating taxi drivers and other similar commercial carriers under the theory that traditional ride shares, such as carpools, don't qualify for the strict regulations that typically give taxi drivers monopolies in their requisite markets. This distinction could also put Uber beyond the protection of open container exceptions and other similar exceptions intended to protect commercial carriers. The majority of states, including Pennsylvania, prohibit passengers from possessing open containers in order to comply with the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century “TEA-21.” Most states choose to comply with TEA-21 because compliance allows the states to receive federal highway funding.
In Pennsylvania, riders are permitted to have an open container, in any “vehicle designed, maintained or used primarily for the lawful transportation of persons for compensation….. [including] buses, taxis and limousines.” The Pennsylvania open container exception creates two unique problems for Uber drivers who may choose to allow passengers to drink in their vehicles.
First, many Uber vehicles are not always used, “primarily for the lawful transportation of persons for compensation.” Many Uber drivers work on a part-time basis and use their vehicles primarily for other purposes such as personal transportation or other work-related uses. However, there are most likely some Uber drivers who primarily use their vehicles for Uber rides.
Second, it’s unclear whether the Pennsylvania open container exception was meant to apply to companies such as Uber. The exception specifically names buses, taxis and limousines but did not likely contemplate services such as Uber. Uber currently operates in Pennsylvania at the will of the Public Utility Commission (the “PUC”) under a two-year temporary license that was only issued after a lengthy legal battle.
The Pennsylvania PUC’s main concerns with the continued availability of Uber are standards of driver integrity, vehicle safety and insurance protections. It could be argued that the questionable long-term legality of Uber services in Pennsylvania and the mixed use of Uber vehicles could exclude Uber drivers from the protection of the Pennsylvania open container law exception.
In the Uber code of conduct Uber states, “unless explicitly allowed by law - open containers of alcohol are not permitted in drivers’ vehicles.” While the Pennsylvania exception does not explicitly allow Uber drivers to carry passengers with open containers, it does not explicitly prohibit such conduct either. Until Uber updates their code of conduct, or the Pennsylvania and other legislatures update open container exceptions, Uber drivers are exercising their own discretion and Uber is potentially exposing themselves to liability for failing to give their drivers better guidance on such an ubiquitous issue.
So where can you drink in an Uber? Ten states generally allow passengers to consume, or at least possess, an open container in automobiles regardless of who is driving. These states include Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, Missouri, Mississippi, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia.
Louis Kroeck is a litigation attorney from Pittsburgh, PA, who specializes in civil litigation, intellectual property law, and entertainment law. He is an avid writer who has written for various legal and online publications for several years such as LegalZoom and eHow. He is also the current editor of the Allegheny County Bar Association's "Point of Law" newsletter. Follow him on Twitter.