It’s said that Montana fosters a culture of drinking and driving – that residents of the Treasure State view DUI almost as a birthright, a sort of rural rite of passage or a symbol of independence.
There’s ample data to support claims that DUI is a well-tried, albeit untenable, tradition in Big Sky Country, and every week another tragedy underscores how the problem cuts into every socioeconomic demographic.
Judges, lawmakers and attorneys are jailed for drunken driving alongside the down-and-out, while city council members and county commissioners are arrested after failing sobriety tests. The report of a coach passed out drunk at a fast food drive-through is followed by an athlete’s arrest for swerving onto the sidewalk the night after winning a big game. And even a role model like Miss Montana isn’t immune to the DUI phenomenon.
The tradition of drinking and driving, some say, has paved a way of life that isn’t sustainable in Montana, which consistently ranks first in the nation for the number of alcohol-related fatal wrecks per miles driven. State lawmakers resisted stricter DUI laws even as other states adopted them, and the Legislature only opted to lower blood-alcohol thresholds and ban open containers when faced with the loss of federal highways funds.
As a handful of legislators prepare for the 2011 session by taking aim at drunken driving in Montana, experts and advocates say it’s time to give DUI double-barrel action, calling for beefed up statutes and a better understanding of the root issue.
“In any state you visit, there are groups of hard-drinking-and-driving alcoholics. It just depends on what that state decides to do about it,” says Timothy Conley, associate professor of social work at the University of Montana.
Conley, an expert on DUI, recently captivated a group of lawmakers serving on the Montana Legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee with the results of a study on chronic DUI.
For the study, Conley and a team of UM researchers surveyed 201 incarcerated felony DUI offenders in Montana to see if they could unlock the answer to a nagging question: How does a state discourage its residents from drinking and driving?
Not surprisingly, they didn’t discover a magic bullet. What they did find, though, is that tougher laws and chemical dependency treatment are the strongest deterrents to chronic drunken driving, and the committee relied on those findings while drafting a preliminary bill aimed at revising Montana’s DUI laws.
The survey found that all of the felony DUI offenders were alcohol dependent, and estimated that each offender drives under the influence of alcohol 369 times per conviction. Conley said that figure is based on self-reports by the inmates, and is probably a conservative estimate.
“Asking these guys how many times they had something to drink and then got in their car and drove, it’s like asking them how often they eat ice cream. It’s a non-event in their lives,” Conley said.
Jim Hutchison, chief toxicologist at the Montana State Crime Lab in Missoula, said in 2008 and 2009 the average blood alcohol content of a Montana driver arrested for DUI was 0.16 – exactly twice the legal limit.
“These are not normal people who are making a couple of mistakes,” Conley said. “These are people who have an abnormal dependency on alcohol. A normal person can’t get up and walk out of a room at a 0.10. You take somebody with no tolerance for alcohol and you feed them up to a 0.10, they’re not going anywhere. And these people are way beyond that and they’re out there driving.”
In Montana, a DUI becomes a felony after the fourth offense, and only then do offenders receive the kind of treatment that experts say works best.
The majority of the inmates that Conley’s team surveyed reported that the Assessment Course Treatment program – a current requirement for offenders convicted of their first, second and third DUI offenses – is ineffective and fails to prevent repeat offenders from driving drunk.
“Sending them to ACT is like trying to kill a bull with a BB gun,” Conley said. “We have to throw real treatment at these people or they’ll never change.”
The same offenders, however, reported that treatment is more effective than incarceration in preventing future offenses, but that they only saw the benefit of that treatment after their fourth or subsequent DUIs, when they were forced to attend the six-month WATCh programs in Warm Springs and Glendive.
“These people told us, ‘You are not going to get my attention until you incarcerate me. You have to take me out of my house, out of my job,’ ” Conley said.
“This is a public health issue,” he continued. “They should be quarantined as though they have a socially dangerous disease. They need to be taken out of circulation, quarantined for six months and put in a therapeutic environment. You have a felony drunk driver who’s alcohol dependent? Six months in a therapeutic community. Sentencing them to anything else will not be effective.”
The notion that a less substantial course of treatment is effective in treating alcoholism is as outdated as Montana’s DUI laws themselves, said Tammera Nauts, deputy director at Turning Point Addiction Services, Missoula’s county-identified treatment provider for underinsured addicts.
“Long gone are the days where people go in for 28 days and come out miraculously cured,” Nauts said. “Chemical dependency treatment is not what it used to be. It really has changed in the past 32 years.”
The ACT program is legislated in Montana state law, so treatment providers can only do as much as the law allows, which Nauts says isn’t enough.
“We are hoping that in the next legislative round, DUI laws are going to get tougher and the course of treatment is going to be expanded,” Nauts said. “Because we are still seeing 1,000 people come through the ACT program in Missoula every year.”
The state health department’s Chemical Dependency Bureau has recognized that Montana’s DUI curriculum needs updating, Nauts said, and for the past couple of years has been reviewing and evaluating a new ACT curriculum to adopt. The result is Prime for Life, a more time-intensive course of treatment.
“Upgrading our DUI curriculum is a big step, and I’m hopeful that our Legislature will see fit to tighten up our DUI laws as well,” Nauts said.
Nicole Scribner is chair of the Montana Common Sense Coalition, a grassroots organization invested in reducing DUI by strengthening current laws. Scribner said judges need to have more discretion when sentencing DUI offenders after their first and second offenses.
“We have the most lenient laws in the nation when it comes to punishing people and doling out consequences for drinking and driving, so that deterrent just isn’t there,” Scribner said.
The deterrent isn’t there on a social or cultural level, either, said Conley, who advocated for mandatory training classes for bartenders and servers. They’re the first line of defense because the alcohol-dependent person does not live in a society where someone might intervene sooner.
“You know what happens to the social context of the alcohol-dependent person?” Conley asked rhetorically. “It shrinks to a subgroup of other alcohol-dependent people. That’s why they don’t stop each other.”
Leo McCarthy, whose daughter Mariah Daye McCarthy was killed by a drunken driver in October 2007, summed up Montana’s DUI problem more succinctly: “We have two ways to go. One way is to mature as a culture and fix this thing, and the other way is to keep ignoring it.”