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Driving Out DUIs

When authorities in Lewis and Clark County started the 24/7 Sobriety pilot project nearly a year ago, there was skepticism. Experience has made doubters into believers.

“It has a pretty good success rate,” said Jolene Peavey, a Sheriff’s Department employee in Helena who tracks the program data. “It pays for itself.”

House Bill 106 would provide Montana’s other 55 counties the option of launching similar programs to reduce drunken driving. HB106 is headed for Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s desk after receiving support from 41 of 50 senators and 97 of 100 representatives.

If Schweitzer signs it into law (and we urge him to do so) the Department of Justice will have lots of work to do between then and the Oct. 1 effective date. Bullock said he is committed to reaching out to sheriffs, judges and county attorneys statewide to help them determine how the program would work in their county and start in October.

“I really view this as a partnership with local law enforcement,” Bullock said.

“I’m sure we’re going to look at that very seriously,” said Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder. He has already discussed the program with County Attorney Scott Twito and with Lewis and Clark County Sheriff Leo Dutton.

Dutton supports the program as does everyone else involved with 24/7 Sobriety who has talked to Linder.

In Helena, suspects have been required to take alcohol breath tests twice daily as a condition of being released from jail on second or subsequent DUI charges since last May. HB106 would also allow judges to require participation in 24/7 Sobriety for a period of time as a part of the sentence for those convicted of DUI.

The Intoxilyzer company, which makes equipment for alcohol breath testing, has committed to providing all the equipment, software and upkeep needed for the program to every county in Montana that wants this, Bullock said. Fees paid by those tested would cover all testing costs. Each test would cost $2. One dollar would go to the company, the other dollar would be kept by the county.

In addition to keeping them sober, the program allows participants to keep working, Bullock said.

HB106 was introduced by Rep. Steve Lavin, R-Kalispell, a Montana Highway Patrol officer.

The idea is borrowed from South Dakota where a similar program started in 2005. Subsequently, that state saw its high rate of alcohol-related crashes drop.

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However, South Dakota authorities have repeatedly pointed out that 24/7 Sobriety was one of several DUI reduction strategies their state started at about the same time. In 2006, South Dakota required every person arrested for DUI to provide a breath, blood or urine sample; increased DUI checkpoints and saturation patrols; revamped classes for first offenders, launched anti-DUI media campaigns and a program to prevent underage drinking.

Likewise, Montana’s legislature is providing other tools for holding drunken drivers accountable. Senate Bill 42, which has been sent to the governor, would permit law officer to seek search warrants to obtain a breath or blood sample when a DUI suspect has refused to take a breath test.

Senate Bill 15, also on the governor’s desk, defines misdemeanor “aggravated DUI” as driving with blood alcohol content exceeding .16 percent, having recent previous DUI convictions or previous breath test refusals. This legislation recognizes that those factors indicate a high risk of re-offense. A person convicted of first offense aggravated DUI could also be sent by a judge to the 24/7 Sobriety program. However, as previously noted in this column, SB15 was amended so that it only allows courts to supervise an offender for one year, not three as proposed.

“These legislative pieces will make a significant difference in DUI over time,” Bullock said.

That’s the goal: less drunken driving, fewer repeat offenders and safer roads for all of us.

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