Legislative candidates, community members and law enforcement officers from across the state gathered Wednesday to discuss one of Montana’s hot-button issues: driving under the influence.
“The DUI touches all facets of our communities,” said Steve Bullock, state attorney general. “We’ve all seen heartache that drinking and driving can cause.”
As one of three panelists heading Wednesday’s discussion at Montana State University Billings, Bullock shared several stories of how DUIs have affected his life and those around Montana.
In March 2009, Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Mike Haynes was killed in a head on collision on U.S. Highway 93.
Bullock said the driver was traveling in the wrong lane on the wrong side of the road with his lights off.
“It really hit after seeing Trooper Haynes’ kids, who are at the same age as mine,” Bullock said. “You reach a tipping point, and I think we are starting to have a community tipping point.”
Bullock said the state of Montana remains near the top of statistics for the number of alcohol-related fatalities in the country.
The average blood alcohol content in Montana’s fatal crashes in 2008 was .16 percent, twice the legal limit.
“We have got to remember that with every statistic, there is always a story behind that statistic,” Bullock said. “The community is saying it’s time to do something. It’s time for a change and they want the carnage that is caused by these drunken drivers to end.”
Bullock said DUI was not a key issue when he was elected.
Things have changed for the 10 to 15 legislative candidates sitting in the audience.
Panelist Erin Inman of the Montana Department of Transportation said it’s all about perception.
“The reason the conversation changed is because people’s perception has changed,” Inman said “There is a public perception that DUI is a minor crime, but it’s a major crime.”
The next step is finding a solution, including treatment options like the Billings Adult Misdemeanor DUI Court established in 2009.
Panelist Adam Flores of Community Solutions leads the program.
Fourteen people have graduated from the program, which can last anywhere from 12 to 18 months and require participants to complete breathalyzer tests, counseling and undergo constant monitoring.
“This approach with treatment was very eye opening to me,” Flores said. “Programs like this are very effective.”
Another program showing promise is the 24/7 Sobriety Program based in Helena.
According to program standards, those who are arrested for a second or subsequent DUI are required to take a breathalyzer test twice a day, every day — once in the morning and once at night.
“But it’s not an end all, cure all,” Bullock said. “My hope by the end of this year is to have results to take to the legislature.”
About 15 bills are in the works to address DUI, Bullock said.
“It’s going to require solutions and best practices and this forum represented a major step prior to the legislative session to make sure the best solutions and ideas come to the top,” said David Carter, deputy Yellowstone County Attorney.
Contact Chelsea Krotzer at firstname.lastname@example.org or 657-1392.