The high-profile death of a highway patrolman in a crash with a drunk driver has prompted officials in Montana to rethink the state’s Old West drinking and driving culture, The Associated Press reports.
Montana, based on the gauge authorities use to compare states, often leads the nation in drunk driving deaths. In 2008, the last year for which complete statistics are available, the state suffered 229 drunk driving deaths. By comparison, Rhode Island, which like Montana has about 1 million residents, posted 65 such deaths, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Residents have long been tolerant of drunk driving, with a saloon-era attitude toward drinking coupled with a libertarian culture that sees roadside “safety checks” as cumbersome, the AP reports. The state did not ban drinking and driving until 2005, under pressure from the federal government.
But there are signs of an attitude shift, prompted by the accident last year that killed Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Michael Haynes. Legislators are talking about tough new laws, judges have begun handing out stiffer sentences in driving under the influence cases, and Attorney General Steve Bullock has launched a pilot project in Helena to force repeat DUI offenders to take daily tests for alcohol use.
“I think we have hit a point where Montana has said ‘enough is enough’ for these subsequent DUIs,” Bullock said.