Last week, Skyview High School students saw with their own eyes why it's risky to be driving while drunk. Fortunately, that lesson was delivered by simulators and presentations in a classroom.
Out on Montana highways, many motorists don't get a chance to learn from their DUI mistakes. Mothers Against Drunk Driving has ranked Montana worst among the 50 states (in a tie with North Dakota) for lack of laws the group recommends to prevent DUI. Forty-five percent of Montana traffic deaths were related to DUI in 2016. So far this year, alcohol is suspected as a factor in 11 Montana highway deaths and drugs are suspected in 11, according to preliminary Montana Highway Patrol data.
Utah ranked the best at curbing DUI with alcohol or drugs factoring in 19 percent of highway fatalities, according to MADD. Utah has enacted laws requiring all DUI offenders to have interlock devices installed on their vehicles, allows sobriety checkpoints, forbids drivers from refusing an alcohol breath test and criminalizes endangering a child by driving drunk.
Montana law doesn't require all offenders to have interlock device that prevent an intoxicated driver from starting his vehicle. Montana doesn't allow sobriety checkpoints where law officers can stop all motorists. MADD recommends that sobriety checkpoints be legalized and conducted at least monthly. Montana law lets some suspected drunk drivers avoid lawfully required breath tests.
Montana does have a law that allows some DUI drivers to be charged with child endangerment for driving with a child in their vehicle while impaired.
Friday marks the traditional start of summer driving season, the time of year when most of Montana's 12 million out-of-state visitors will be on our roads. Montanans also travel more between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. We tend to drive faster and farther when the weather is good. Unfortunately, those sunny days and clear nights are when most fatal crashes occur.
Alcohol and drugs figure prominently in Montana's traffic death toll, along with failure to use seat belts.
Nationally, about 90% of motorists usually wear seat belts. In Montana, about 78% of motorists use seat belts. The 22% of us who don't use seat belts account for 59 percent of traffic fatalities among vehicle occupants, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Montana has long had a law that requires vehicle occupants to use seat belts, but officers can only enforce the seat belt law when they observe that the driver has committed some other violation. Even with that restriction to "secondary enforcement," Montana officers write an average of 10,400 seat belt citations annually. The $20 fine is split between state and local government.
A seat belt "primary enforcement" bill died in the 2019 Legislature, as similar proposals have died in almost every session for decades. The cost of "secondary enforcement" includes dozens of lives lost and hundreds of serious injuries annually.
Changes in Montana laws would reduce injury and death on Montana roads. Without those changes, this summer, still must try to keep ourselves and passengers safe. If you want to arrive alive at your destination, buckle up, stay alert and sober on every trip.
All drivers should know what the "Save A Life Tour" taught Skyview students last week.