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Montana's soft stance on DUIs necessitates a cultural shift

by Daily Inter Lake
| August 6, 2023 12:00 AM

Nearly half of all Montana traffic deaths in 2020 were DUI related. The sobering statistic is a badge of shame for Big Sky Country that state lawmakers seemingly have little interest in shedding.

While consistently rated among the states with the most drunk drivers, Montana also boasts some of the weakest DUI laws in the nation.

As detailed by Daily Inter Lake reporter Kate Heston, it takes a driver getting four DUIs before it becomes a felony in Montana.

Four!

Even in baseball it’s three strikes and you’re out. Sadly, it’s not uncommon for repeat offenders to rack up as many as seven DUIs in Montana.

What’s more, Montana doesn’t have interlock device requirements for all offenders, there are no sobriety checkpoints, no automatic license revocation and no refusal laws.

In contrast, punishment for driving under the influence in Arizona is far more severe. A first offense includes mandatory jail time, substantial fines, loss of driver’s license and an ignition interlock device.

Kalispell Republican Rep. Terry Falk made a push for increased penalties for first, second and third offenses during the 2023 session. Unfortunately, his effort never made it to the House floor for a vote.

The one bill that did get signed into law by Gov. Greg Gianforte actually further loosened Montana’s DUI laws.

Senate Bill 107, sponsored by Republican Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick of Great Falls, reduced the monetary damages a bar can receive for overserving a patron. Supporters included powerful lobbies like the Liquor Store Owners Association of Montana, Montana Brewers Association, National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors and the Gaming Industry Association of Montana.

Former Kalispell Police Chief and lawmaker Frank Garner told the Inter Lake it will take a multi-agency and bipartisan effort to make meaningful headway in addressing Montana’s drunk driving crisis, with law enforcement, legislators, members of the justice system and health care providers all at the table.

“It's multigenerational, it's multicultural, there's just not one place you can push and completely change the dynamic,” Garner admitted.

And therein lies the crux of the issue.

More strict penalties are certainly part of the equation, but so are more robust drug and alcohol treatment programs for early offenders, as well as an overall change in the attitude that DUIs are no big deal.

It will take a top-down approach to make that cultural shift, starting with the legislators who make the laws, the officers who enforce them, and the judges who wield sentencing powers.

One family who spoke with the Inter Lake knows all too well the devastation that results from driving intoxicated. Mike Hanson’s teenage daughter, Brooke, was walking back from a fishing hole in Columbia Falls when she was struck and killed by a DUI driver.

“This county and this state turn a blind eye when it comes to drinking and driving,” Mike said. “The streets are painted with the blood of innocent victims, of innocent kids.”

It’s past time Montana starts treating drunk driving as the violent crime it is, and not a culturally accepted norm.

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