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Montana’s drinking culture is under examination following a high-profile death of a highway patrolman after being hit by a drunk driver. Judges in the state are becoming less lenient to plea deals and law enforcement leaders are beginning to take repeat offenders more seriously. The days of to-go cocktails and getting a pass on driving drunk in Montana seem to be coming to a close.
Montana came under scrutiny from the federal government in 2005 because it was legal to drink and drive in many places in the state. There were few speed limits on major highways and in rural areas. The state, as a whole, embraced the ‘Old West’ saloon-era laissez-faire attitude towards alcohol.
The state has long been very tolerant of drunk drivers in spite of the fact that it has consistently ranked at or near the top of per capita drunken driving deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that Montana had the highest alcohol-related traffic fatalities per miles traveled in 2008. As a comparison, Montana has 1 million residents and had 229 alcohol-related deaths while New Jersey has about the same population and had 65 alcohol-related deaths that year.
Small town bars still offer to-go cups for patrons and drunk drivers are shifted through the courts and released before they have even sobered up. That along with the over-all ‘anti-government’ independent streak of the population there have made it difficult for officials to tighten up the laws.
“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.”
Now, Montana’s State Legislature is starting to promise tough new laws to ban open containers of alcohol in cars and to prosecute repeat offenders.
Montana Highway Patrol officer Michael Haynes was killed in a drunk driving accident last year. He was hit head-on by a man who had been served 13 drinks in a bar over a 3 1/2 hour period. The judge who presided over that case insisted on mandatory jail time rather than the usual plea deal for the defendant.
The high-profile death of Michael Haynes started a state-wide conversation about the leniency of Montana’s drunk driving laws. Haynes put a very public face to the problem of drinking and driving in Montana.
“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 rite of passage. I have nothing against alcohol, you just have to be responsible.”
Since then, there has been a media campaign to publicize information about repeat offenders leading to the public filling the editorial pages with demands for a solution to the problem. The notoriously independent people of Montana seem ready for a change.
In addition to stiffer sentences for drunken drivers, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock is launching a pilot project in Helena that will force repeat offenders to take a daily test for alcohol use at their own expense.
Apparently, the people have had enough of the Montana drinking and driving culture.
You can see the video below on the teen drinking culture in Montana.