MT: Group seeks changes in curbing DUIs
By Phil Drake
September 11, 2018
HELENA – Closer monitoring of people convicted of driving under the influence, well-publicized sobriety checkpoints and a higher beer tax are among suggestions unveiled Tuesday by a tri-county DUI task force for a state that they say has the worst impaired- driving problem in the nation.
During a news conference on the steps of the state Capitol, members of the DUI Law Committee consisting of members from Cascade, Missoula and Yellowstone county DUI task forces, offered ideas on how to reduce such incidents.
“Montana not only has a DUI problem, but it has trouble admitting it has a DUI problem,” Attorney General Tim Fox said as he was asked to speak to the 25 people in attendance.
Other suggestions included electronic warrants for those who refuse Breathalyzer tests and the state should collect annual DUI case statistics by lower courts by court and judge.
Ron Yates, chairman of the law committee of the Cascade County DUI Task Force, said the suggestions that came from a 2018 Montana DUI survey called for lawmakers to take some tough action.
“It’s not rocket science, but it involves making hard decisions with funding,” he said, urging people to approach state lawmakers about making changes.
The news conference included several people whose lives had been hurt by impaired driver and included a man who had several DUI convictions.
Tammy Mayer’s son was severely injured in March when the vehicle he was in was hit by an impaired driver, sending him through the windshield.
“I’ve learned how crappy the laws are in Montana,” she said, adding the driver has never paid restitution and faced a lesser charge.
Montana had the nation’s highest percentage of fatal vehicle accidents caused by impaired drivers in three of the last five years (2012-2016), task force members said.
Yates noted that 24 percent of Montanans drink 90 percent of the alcohol.
According to figures provided by the Montana Highway Patrol, 52 percent (34) of the 65 deaths on Montana roads from Jan. 1 to June 30 were alcohol or drug related.
And while the national rate of fatalities involving legally drunken drivers declined in the last 10 years from 32 percent to 28 percent, fatalities in Montana involving drunken drivers increased from 38 percent in 2007 to 45 percent in 2016.
It’s estimated that 40 percent of first-time DUI offenders get a second DUI.
The task force is asking that judges require either close monitoring or ignition interlocks for first-time DUI offenders, with the costs being paid by the offender.
The group also believes well-publicized sobriety checkpoints by law enforcement could be effective in Montana. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that when such checkpoints were run in 38 states and the District of Columbia, alcohol-related crashes and fatalities decreased by more than 20 percent, Yates said.
They cause potential DUI offenders to be more cautious, believing they will get caught more easily. Task force members said a Montana Highway Patrol official said funding would be a challenge and that sobriety checkpoints are an “East Coast idea that doesn’t work in Montana.”
Funding for each checkpoint, including eight officers needed to run it, would average about $4,000 for about half a day staffing, including advertising.
If the 10 most populous Montana counties each used these monthly, costs for police or highway patrol would be between $450,000 to $500,00 annually.
The tax force also proposes increasing the beer tax rate from 1.4 cents per 12 ounce can of beer to a nickel, noting Montana has a lower beer tax rate than 80 percent of other states, and second-highest per capita rates of beer consumption in the nation.
The money would only be used to help fund evidence-based prevention, law enforcement, DUI courts, treatment, and counseling.
John Iverson, a lobbyist for the Montana Tavern Association who was contacted shortly after the news conference, opposes the idea.
“By their own math, it would be a 257 percent increase in taxes,” he said.
Iverson cited the state’s 24/7 program, in which offenders are checked twice daily for alcohol content or wearing monitoring bracelets, as being effective.
He also said the Montana Tavern Association started a pilot program in Helena, the first of its kind in the nation, In which Uber drivers drive people home for free.
Iverson said DUI task forces should concentrate more on prevention.
“I don’t see any DUI task force trying to prevent DUIs, they are trying to catch DUIs,” he said. “What are we doing before they get in a car? That is where DUI task forces have not reached their potential. I think we can do better than that.”