MISSOULA — This past Christmas was the worst ever for Vincent Baldini.
But he figures Christmas was nothing compared with how bad April 1 will be. The day with the silly name would have been his great-nephew Jacob Gamble’s ninth birthday.
Then Baldini and his family will have to gird themselves for Aug. 5.
“Obviously,” said Baldini, “that’s the worst day in all our lives.”
Tougher Montana drunken driving laws won’t ease the pain of that date. But they’ll make Baldini feel that Jacob’s death wasn’t entirely in vain.
Last Aug. 5, Jacob, his little brother Eli, their mom and stepdad, along with their two dogs, were heading east on Interstate 90 near Clinton, traveling through the night from their home outside Seattle toward a rendezvous with family in Yellowstone National Park. It was 4:30 a.m.
Daniel Martin had just swiped a red pickup from the Rock Creek Lodge, where the annual Testicle Festival was in full swing, and pulled onto the interstate – in the wrong direction. Both Martin and Jacob died when the pickup crashed into the Gamble family’s Honda.
Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Andrew Novak, who responded to the crash, recalled that Martin “reeked of alcohol.”
Despite his fury with those who drive drunk and take innocent lives, said Baldini, “I would gladly give that driver’s life back to have Jacob back.”
Lacking that, here’s what he’d like to see: A Montana Legislature mindful that the need to crack down on the problem of impaired driving didn’t end with the laws that were passed in 2011, when DUI was a key focus of lawmakers.
It’s different this year, a situation some activists attribute to “DUI fatigue.” Certainly, only a handful of bills submitted so far deal directly with impaired driving.
“If they’re tired of talking about DUI legislation, then are they going to be tired of reading stories like the one that happened to Jacob?” Baldini wondered. “Are they going to be so callous that they’re going to read that article (about yet another DUI fatality) and say, ‘Well, it happens. I’m glad it wasn’t my child or grandchild.’ ”
Becky Sturdevant of Kalispell lost her son, Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Evan Schneider, to a drunken driver in 2008. Sturdevant said she’s heard the “DUI fatigue” phrase, but cautioned that the 2013 session is young.
“We had some great success” in 2011, Sturdevant said. “We should be able to make some progress” in 2013.
The most notable success in 2011 was the passage of the “24/7” law that requires repeat DUI offenders to submit to breath tests twice a day, at their own expense. (Ankle bracelets that react to alcohol use are options, albeit more expensive ones, for people who live far from testing centers.)
Before 24/7, those convicted of DUI who continued to drink – let alone drive – suffered consequences only if they were caught, said Maj. Tom Butler of the Montana Highway Patrol.
With 24/7, the consequences are immediate: Skip a test, get a warrant. Blow “hot,” go to jail.
The program became law under the watch of then-Attorney General Steve Bullock, who heavily promoted it. Now governor, Bullock noted last week that of the 157,000 tests administered under 24/7 during the past 15 months, 99.7 percent showed that the offender hadn’t had a single drink.
Such results are so promising that there’s a move to apply the 24/7 concept to other crimes, such as domestic abuse, where alcohol is a frequent factor, Butler said.
“Unfortunately, alcohol is a root cause of a significant number of law enforcement calls,” he said.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, adds drug monitoring to the 24/7 program, one of a number of measures that deal with impaired driving involving substances other than alcohol.
And it applies 24/7 to anyone “charged with any crime in which the abuse of alcohol or dangerous drugs was a contributing factor in the commission of the crime.” The bill had its first reading in the House on Jan. 17.
A bill by Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, would mandate special orange license plates with “DUI” on them for people convicted of DUI or those who refuse a breath test. (A law passed in 2011 authorizes mandatory blood tests of people arrested for a second or subsequent DUI who refuse to blow.)
New Attorney General Tim Fox backs legislation that would charge people with second DUIs – and therefore subject to mandatory blood tests if they refuse a breath test – no matter how long ago their first DUI occurred. People now are charged, again, with a first DUI, if a prior DUI was more than five years earlier, according to his office.
And one sponsored by Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, makes the 13-month treatment sentence common for felony DUI convictions mandatory, and raises the maximum sentence in such cases from five to 10 years.
Baldini likes that sort of philosophy.
He’s heard the arguments that personal responsibility is the way to fight impaired driving. “But people who get behind the wheel drunk, and drive time after time after time, they’ve demonstrated by the way they live their lives that they don’t understand that,” he said. “So then it becomes society’s goal to educate these people one way or the other, either by incarcerating them or taking their license.”
He urges Montana lawmakers to approve the tougher sanctions. “It’s their job to protect the citizens of Montana and the people who travel through their state. They can’t be tired of looking at this ... not with that terrible, terrible, terrible possibility that this could happen again.”