Montana needs alcohol culture change
Montana’s culture of drinking and driving isn’t going to change overnight, but with enough clear-eyed determination and statewide support, we can get started down the road that will lead us there.
By now it should be apparent to every resident that Montana needs to change its relationship with alcohol. Incredibly, there are still a lot of folks out there who think it’s OK to drink too much and then drive home. They simply don’t see that by doing so, they are risking not only their own lives, but the lives of everyone who shares the road.
However, that gamble is becoming ever more difficult to ignore. Nearly every Montanan has been personally affected by drunken driving, and those few who haven’t cannot miss the news reports tallying the multiple DUIs and drunken driving deaths in the state. They can’t miss the fact that Montana has more drunken driving deaths per mile of road driven than any other state.
An Oct. 18 story by Missoulian reporter Michael Jamison on the state’s drink-and-drive heritage showed just how pervasive the problem is by examining the way it has touched the lives of many people tied to a single incident. In late August, a boat driven by state Sen. Greg Barkus crashed into the rocky shore ringing Flathead Lake, injuring all five aboard – Barkus and his wife, Kathy; Montana Congressman Denny Rehberg; Rehberg’s state director, Dustin Frost; and Rehberg’s deputy chief of staff Kristin Smith.
Barkus was subsequently charged with criminal endangerment and negligent vehicular assault, with prosecutors saying – and his defense attorney challenging – that his blood-alcohol content was nearly twice the legal limit.
But the story didn’t end there. It also noted that Barkus had been arrested for DUI previously, as had his defense attorney and the prosecutor’s deputy attorney – and that the DUI arrest of Barkus’ defense attorney was dismissed after the arresting officer was killed by a drunken driver. And it went on to highlight the large number of people from all walks of life who have logged DUIs, from county commissioners and judges to probation officers and bus drivers.
It’s no wonder so many young people grow up thinking that driving under the influence is no big deal. That has got to change, and it’s a change we can begin making now.
Efforts are already under way, through a new interim legislative committee looking at potential changes to the state’s DUI laws. This panel appears poised to recommend real legislative changes that promise to have a real impact on Montana’s DUI rates. Many of them are reasonable, evidence-based solutions offered by the Montana Community Change Project, which has been studying programs that work in other communities and states.
Those ideas include, for instance, the use of interlock devices that require drivers convicted of DUI to pass a breath test before they can start their cars. Right now, judges in Montana can require the use of such devices, but it’s left up to the judge’s discretion – and it appears few of them are choosing to make them part of DUI sentencing. Another legislative change could make it illegal for anyone to loan a car to a DUI offender, or stamping DUI alerts on driver’s licenses.
Judges should be able to use discretion when handing down sentences, certainly, but this discretion should be balanced with more standardized sentences so that people have a good idea what to expect should they be caught drinking and driving. A mere slap on the wrist in the form of a fine sends the wrong message to first-time DUI offenders.
And when its comes to sending messages, every Montanan can have a hand in making it clear that driving while drunk is not just illegal, it’s unacceptable. That there are always ways to get home other than by driving drunk. That too many lives have been lost and too many families devastated for Montana’s drunken driving culture to continue.
It’s time for Montana to choose a new road.