Montana DUI Laws Must Reconcile its Culture of Drinking and Driving


Montana is a state that prides itself on its independent spirit, and its frontier heritage. One of the ways that this spirit shows itself is in the state’s slow response to what most other states in the nation have taken very seriously: drunk driving.

For years Montana has had the reputation as the state where it was still legal to drink and drive, and where records barely kept track of repeat DUI offenders.

The DUI laws were lax, just as there were no speed limits on many of the roads and highways, and that is how citizens of the state liked it.

Numerous factors, however, have caused Montana to reevaluate its positions on drunk driving. One factor was the pressure that the federal government put on the state in 2005 to place limits on drunk driving and to get the legal situation under control.

Add to that a high profile death of a police officer by a drunk driver, when a bartender served the guilty party 13 drinks in 3.5 hours before the tragedy, and the tide was beginning to turn. Legislators began to working towards updating Montana DUI laws; finding ways to track repeat offenders; and improving often lenient plea deals in DUI cases.

Now, the state legislature is even promising tough news laws, according to the Associated Press. What began as a struggle to make it illegal to drink alcohol while actually driving has become a movement to change the culture in Montana, a state that tops rankings for drunk driving deaths in the country.

Such a transformation isn’t easy. There’s not much public transportation in Montana, and the independent streak of its citizens makes imposing the will of the law against such longstanding traditions difficult.

“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.”

Nonetheless, the state has a real problem on its hands that it must face.

The death of the police officer, state trooper Michael Haynes of the Montana Highway Patrol, led the judge in the case to throw out the plea deal set out for the bartender in the case and instead to sentence him to mandatory jail time.

Since that fired up the public conversation, newspapers have covered particularly egregious offenders and debated the issue of DUI and punishment in Op Ed sections.

Tawny Haynes is the wife of Trooper Michael Haynes. “Obviously it’s very exciting to see the change,” she said. “Alcohol just seems to be way of life around here, a rite of passage. I have nothing against alcohol, you just have to be responsible.”

“I think the people of Montana are really ready for this change,” she continued.

The National Highway Safety Administration found that in 2008 Montana led the country in alcohol-related deaths per miles traveled. Its 229 deaths that year were almost four times more frequent than Rhode Island, a state with a similar population.

Stiffer sentences from judges and an attorney general who launched a pilot program to test DUI repeat offenders for alcohol use are further indications that the worm is turning in Montana.

And publicity of the problem may be working. DUI fatalities are down 40 percent in Montana so far this year, a trend that law enforcement hopes will continue.

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