HELENA - Montana has long had a reputation as a place where you could crack open a beer while driving down the interstate just about as fast as you liked.

Until 2005, when the state came under heavy duress from the federal government, it was legal to drink and drive in many places. And a few years before that there wasn't even a speed limit on major highways and in rural areas.

But spurred by the high-profile death of a highway patrolman at the hands of an intoxicated driver, Montana's Old West drinking and driving culture is retreating. Judges are rejecting lenient plea deals and law enforcement leaders are exploring different ways of keeping track of repeat offenders.

Even the Legislature, which just a few years ago struggled mightily to ban open containers of booze in cars, is beginning to promise tough new laws. This comes after years of virtually ignoring the state's ranking at or near the top of per capita drunken driving deaths.

Montana has long been tolerant of drivers who drink.

Some small town bars still offer cocktails in a to-go cup. Repeat DUI offenders are shuttled in and out of the system before they have a chance to sober up.

Montana has many isolated roads and almost no public transportation. A saloon era attitude toward drinking, coupled with Montana's libertarian streak that eschews tough law enforcement or even letting local police set up roadside "safety checks," combine for a deadly scenario, experts say.

"There is significant anti-government sentiment which spills over into impaired driving enforcement," said Mothers Against Drunk Drivers' Rebecca Sturdevant. "Rather than praising public safety officers for keeping our highways safe, I have heard legislators berate them for bothering drivers."

But almost no one doubts the state is coming to grips with its drinking and driving issues.

A statewide conversation started last year after the high-profile death of Montana Highway Patrol trooper Michael Haynes - killed in a head-on crash after a bartender served the other driver 13 drinks over 3 1/2 hours. The judge in that case sent a message by throwing out a plea deal against the bartender in favor of mandatory jail time.

Headlines in the state have since been full of repeat offenders being charged with a 9th or even 10th DUI, keeping editorial pages abuzz with demands for a solution.

"Obviously it's very exciting to see the change. It is a huge part of the culture here, drunk driving, binge drinking and underage drinking," said Tawny Haynes, the widow of the officer who was killed. "Alcohol just seems to be way of life around here, a right of passage. I have nothing against alcohol, you just have to be responsible."

Haynes, who said her youngest son only knows his dad as the picture on the wall, said she feels compelled to honor her husband - who led all troopers in DUI arrests before being killed - by giving a face to the problem.

"I think the people of Montana are really ready for this change that seems to be happening," she said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that Montana led all states in 2008 in alcohol-related traffic fatalities per miles traveled. Montana had 229 that year in a state with just 1 million residents - compared to Rhode Island, which has about the same population but only had only 65 such deaths.

Not only are judges dishing out stiffer sentences, the attorney general has launched a pilot project in Helena to force subsequent DUI offenders to do daily tests for alcohol use - all at their own expense. Lawmakers who meet every other year will look at unrolling that program statewide then they convene in 2011.

"We didn't want to wait for the next Legislature before we started taking steps, and so we put together a pilot that we hope will show some results," Attorney General Steve Bullock said.

Bullock thinks all the publicity put on repeat drunk drivers is already helping. He says that so far this year DUI fatalities are down 40 percent, and he is cautiously optimistic that trend will hold.

"I think we have hit a point where Montana has said 'enough is enough for these subsequent DUIs,'" the attorney general said.

It's been a long road.

Back in 2003, state Sen. Jim Shockley led the lawmakers who killed an attempt to ban drivers from drinking a beer while they were driving - as long as the driver wasn't drunk.

The outspoken civil libertarian railed against the U.S. Department of Transportation for attaching highway money to the issue. Now Shockley, running for state attorney general, is among those looking for tougher drinking and driving laws.

His plan would set up a 24-hour magistrate in Helena that police in the state could call to get a warrant to take blood from suspected drunk drivers. Right now, Montana drivers can refuse the test. They still lose their driver's license but deny prosecutors that evidence for a DUI charge.

The proposed crackdowns will cost extra money at a time Montana is be looking to cut spending.

"All of these things are going to cost money, and that is a problem. But if the people really want something then we are going to have to do it," said Shockley.

Tawny Haynes said lawmakers no longer have a choice.

"If this is what the people want, and I think it's clear they do, then this is the direction the Legislature needs to go in," she said. "I think people are sick of it, so it is not something they can ignore."

 

More from missoulian.com

(8) comments

2buck2

The fact is that the drinking and driving culture in Montana is just as responsible for the deaths caused by drunk driving as the drivers themselves. How long do some of these people get away with it before tragedy strikes? They are still risking someones life every time they do it. Only until someone is killed do we start to make the statements as to how wrong it is. Well it was certainly wrong the whole time they were doing it. I have overheard so many people talk, brag even, about how they got drunk and drove home and didn't even remember how they got there. Its a funny story to them and everyone around them. Big laughs. Good times. Pathetic.

harpjane

Legal or not, it's bad manners and bad citizenship to drive when you are not in full control. Oh, and what a lame headline? Drinking and Driving at a Crossroad? Are we trying to get on Jay Leno?

Tiny

Fear Mongering? My son 24 was walking and laughing when Brian Holm, with his to go drink; drunk and on perscription drugs, hit my son from behind going the wrong way. He threw my son into a rock wall head first leaving a dent where his head hit, ripping off his foot and most of his face. "Reality!"

Rob C

I am 100% behind you and what happened to your son IS the kind of thing that needs to be stopped. There is no excuse for the excessive drinking, drugs, and negligence that Holm caused that night. He should be held responsible in every way, and it angers me that he uses the same screwed up laws to get him out of trouble that is often misused to prosecute others. I don't particularly care which one of many reasons Holm did what he did, but he killed an innocent person walking down a sidewalk, and for what ever reason he did that he deserves punshment.

The demon alcohol is blamed when it may or may not be the CAUSE. Over a thousand DUI's written in Missoula alone didn't stop Holm from doing ALL of the things he did that led to a tragic death. I just want the discussion to be honest, and this article is not honest.

Greenland

Like any form of negligent conduct, anything that results in injury or death should be punished accordingly. I don't think diabetics should be punished for being diabetic, or being in a diabetic state either, but when they knowingly go out, drive, realize they are having symptoms, continue driving, then black out at the wheel, and kill someone, diabetes shouldn't be an excuse either. Same for drugs.

Curmudgeon

"But, gee whillikers, Clem, how'm Ah gonna prove Ah'm a real He-Man, if'n Ah caint git me any no DUI?"

Greenland

The article represents an egregious misuse of statistics.

First of all, the "229 deaths" is ALL traffic fatalities, not "alcohol-related."

Secondly, Montana is third in the nation with just under 113 "alcohol-related" highway deaths, after Mississippi and Florida.

Montana, in overall fatalities on highways had 209 deaths in 2009 compared to Rhode Island at 83 deaths. Compared to their overall death rates, the percentage of Montana and Rhode Island are roughly 50% for those deaths attributable to "alcohol-related."

So Montana does not, in fact, have a significantly different "rate" of DUI related deaths compared to Rhode Island if the overall rate of deaths is taken into account.

Considering that falling asleep is, anecdotally, a primary cause of both alcohol and non-alcohol related fatalities in Montana, Montana's high rate on both counts is statistically unrelated to any higher incidence of DUI, but is specifically related to longer driving distances and poorer weather conditions compared to all but a handful of states.

Too, "alcohol-related" is a term dependent on how the term is used by a given state. It does not mean "alcohol-caused" in Montana, only that there was alcohol "involved," which can mean simply that there was a bottle of beer in the car and that very broad definition likely substantially increases the apparent rate compared to those states that make the distinction. It also explains why Montana has had such a difficult time reducing attributable accidents -- the combination of distance and definition do not measure genuine DUIs, but rather are measuring something that cannot be reduced by draconian laws.

Rob C

Comparing Montana to Rhode Island? I wonder if the fact that you could fit 100 Rhode Islands in the state of Montana has anything to do with this statistic? A state 100th the size must have a similar infrastructure and other available options for transport. Not to mention the fact that people in Montana just plain drive more than people in urban areas. How many DUI's are written in RI vs MT? I be those numbers are way off as well. Lets face it, way more people here are given DUI's for the revenue generated than anything else. Are we really trying to but down on drinking and driving, or are the powers that be trying to justify their existence? What is the officer to citizen ratio in MT vs RI? Can we use facts or is the Missoulian just going to keep publishing half fact fear mongering stories?

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.