Montana is the deadliest state for crashes involving drunken drivers.
This fact isn’t news to the state’s law enforcement officers, county attorneys and hospital trauma teams. Our state has maintained this terrible ranking for years. The most recent statistics, released last month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, show that Montana’s rate of alcohol-involved traffic fatalities remains more than double the national average. No other state is in that category, although Wyoming came close in 2008 with a 34 percent increase in its alcohol-related fatality rate. Montana’s DUI death rate actually declined 9.7 percent from 2007 to 2008, but our numbers are so high that we’re still the worst. (NHTSA defines alcohol-related traffic deaths as those resulting from a crash in which at least one driver or motorcycle operator had a blood-alcohol level of at least .08 percent, the level at which all states’ laws presume intoxication.)
All states bordering Montana have death rates above the national average, with one exception: South Dakota had fewer than average DUI deaths and its death rate decreased 22.4 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to NHTSA.
Last month in Helena, a committee of Montana lawmakers heard how South Dakota is saving lives. At the Dec. 18 meeting of the Interim Law and Justice Committee, Montana Highway Patrol Col. Mike Tooley gave a presentation on South Dakota’s 24/7 Sobriety Project.
South Dakota project
As the MHP chief noted, five years ago, Montana and South Dakota had similar issues with alcohol: 40 percent of traffic fatalities in both states were alcohol-related, the vast majority of inmates in both states has alcohol or other drug problems, 13 percent of South Dakota’s prison population had felony DUIs; 12 percent of offenders being supervised by the Montana Department of Corrections had felony DUIs. (Recently, that was 247 in Montana prisons and 1,233 on parole.)
A key feature of the South Dakota program requires people convicted of DUI to report twice daily to their county sheriff’s office for breath testing. Those who flunk or fail to show up are arrested and jailed. Between February 2005 and June 2009, South Dakota authorities administered more than 2 million breath tests under this project. The test pass rate was 99.6 percent. It’s estimated that the tests saved local governments $60 million they otherwise would have spent keeping these offenders in jail.
SCRAM in Billings
In addition, the South Dakota project uses SCRAM bracelets for some repeat DUI offenders. These devices measure alcohol in sweat and immediately detect that an offender has been drinking in violation of court order. Among 1,674 people who were monitored in 41/2 years, 78 percent never drank while wearing the bracelets.
The results of the South Dakota project have been dramatic. NHSTA reports that state had the largest percentage drop of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the nation for the years 2006, 2007 and 2008 — a total decrease of 43 percent compared with a national average decrease of 3.7 percent.
SCRAM bracelets are one tool being used by the Billings Municipal Drug Treatment Court, which debuted a year ago with federal funding through the Montana Department of Transportation.
After two days of meetings devoted primarily to DUI issues, the Law and Justice Committee voted to focus further on three broad areas:
• Stiffening administrative and correctional penalties, possibly including changes in penalties for drivers who refuse alcohol breath tests.
• Enhancing treatment components of penalties.
• Revising probationary supervision, possibly using SCRAM bracelets or borrowing ideas from the South Dakota 24/7 Sobriety Project.
“The committee’s very interested in trying to expand treatment options,” said Sen. Lynda Moss of Billings, who was favorably impressed by a tour of the state’s felony DUI treatment program at Warm Springs as well as by judges’ presentations on treatment courts.
Reasons that Montana needs to crack down on impaired driving appear almost daily on The Gazette’s news pages:
• “Woman accused of DUI No. 7 free on bond” said the headline on a Dec. 29 report of a 55-year-old Billings woman arraigned on charges of driving without insurance, failing to stop at a stop sign and felony DUI. A Yellowstone County deputy arrested her after observing her vehicle swerving several times before running a stop sign. The driver smelled of alcohol and had slurred speech and bloodshot eyes, according to the arresting officer. However, she refused to perform any sobriety tests or to provide a breath sample.
• “Driver charged in deaths of 2 teens,” said another headline in the same edition. That story told of a 29-year-old Turah man accused of striking four teenage pedestrians with his pickup truck in Missoula. Two of the girls, ages 14 and 15, died instantly. The others were hospitalized. Authorities reported that the suspect driver still had a blood-alcohol level nearly double the legal limit three hours after the fatal crash.
Here are some headlines we’d like to see in future Billings Gazette editions:
“Montana lawmakers close DUI loopholes”
“Schweitzer signs bill criminalizing DUI breath test refusal”
“Treatment courts hold offenders accountable”
“Montana’s DUI death rate among nation’s lowest”
Those public safety improvements are possible, as shown in South Dakota and other states. Montanans who are concerned about DUI should tell their governor and lawmakers. When legislative candidates ask for your vote later this year, ask what they will do about Montana’s drinking problem.