Recent coverage of proposed changes in Montana's DUI law has raised the question of whether Montanans really support changes or whether political and financial pressure from the federal government has propelled change to the forefront. Discussion has also centered on using the law to influence social change - in this case, increasing the public's support for stricter DUI regulations and reducing the occurrence of drinking and driving among Montanans.
But the debate over stricter DUI laws misses an important point. An alternative scenario exists. What if the social change has already occurred, but it is the law that lags behind?
One recent editorial suggests letting the public decide on the proposed change from a .10 percent blood alcohol content (BAC) legal limit to .08. The Montana Social Norms Project, a health promotion and education project at Montana State University, has already researched this very question.
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Support for stricter law Preliminary results indicate that there is already strong support for a .08 law. More than two-thirds of young adults support the change from .10 to .08, according to a November 2001 survey of 1,000 Montanans aged 21 to 34.
Interestingly, this survey also reveals a misperception regarding others' support for this change. While the majority of young adults in Montana support the change, they do not believe their "peers" feel the same way.
The same 1,000 respondents reported believing that, on average, only a third of 21- to 34-year-old Montanans would support changing the legal limit to .08. There is a nearly opposite relationship between what people support and what they think their peers support.
This type of misperception occurs with behavior as well. For example, the same survey revealed that while a large majority of Montana young adults - four out of five - do not drink and drive, more than 90 percent of respondents believe that the average Montanan their age does.
Misperceptions about DUI The overall conclusion from this research is that although there is a misperception that drinking and driving is "normal" in Montana, the evidence indicates it is not. Further, despite a perceived resistance to stricter DUI laws, it appears there is strong support for them among the very segment of the population most likely to drink and drive - young adults. Older adults are likely to support the change as well because previous research shows that older segments of the population are more apt to support stricter laws in general.
Uncovering misperceptions helps explain how people might think there is widespread opposition to changing the legal BAC to .08. But when the reality of the healthy behavior that most of us engage in is made clear, suddenly the context surrounding these issues is altered. An accurate understanding of Montanans' beliefs and behaviors removes an assumed opposition and clears the path to establishing laws that accurately reflect the will of the public.
By realizing that these extreme negative behaviors are unacceptable and not as prevalent as we may think, we alter how we address these issues.
Our efforts to implement prevention campaigns, to create useful policy and to form accurate opinions can benefit from the power of the majority who practice healthy, positive behaviors and who want our laws to reflect the same.
Serious problem Any amount of impaired driving is a serious problem that affects us all.
One of the most powerful tools we have to address this concern is an understanding that the majority of Montanans support a strong response to drinking and driving.
We must set the record straight by replacing the misperception that Montanans do not support stricter DUI measures with the reality that most of us want to prevent drinking and driving.
Drinking and driving in Montana is a serious problem. Setting the legal BAC at .08 has saved lives in other states, and it will in Montana as well. It is a law we should implement not to comply with a federal mandate or to change the culture of Montana, but because it would reflect the true behavior and the will of the people. Our culture is already there.
Montanans are ready for a .08 law.
Jeff Linkenbach, Ed.D., is the director of the Montana Social Norms Project, home of the MOST of Us® Campaigns, and an assistant research professor in the Department of Health and Human Development at Montana State University in Bozeman.