Montana drivers can still sip a cold one
Find a Conversation
|Wed, 04-23-2003 - 3:09pm|
Lawmakers bristle at pressure to ban alcohol in vehicles.
Wednesday, April 23, 2003
By CURT WOODWARD
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
HELENA, Mont. -- Montana lawmakers are about to go home for the year without banning open liquor containers in cars and trucks, a decision one activist against drunken driving blames on the state's cowboy culture.
"I think there's still perhaps some carry-over from people whose view is their individual rights are being trampled on," said Bill Muhs, president of a local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states do not have open-container bans that meet federal standards. Muhs said the bans are cheap and effective at reducing drunken driving, but critics have stalled efforts at the Montana Capitol to enact one by raising the specter of increasing police power.
Republican state Rep. Jim Shockley, who has led the push against a ban, said such a law would be mostly a feel-good measure. He suggested greater enforcement of laws already on the books would do more to curb drunken driving.
Shockley also said advocates of tougher restrictions shouldn't try to change Montanans' attitudes about drinking and driving.
"It's not their business to change our culture," Shockley said. "If they don't like our culture, they should go somewhere else."
Driving is a necessity in Montana, the fourth-largest state. Driving 550 miles from North Dakota to Idaho is the equivalent of driving from Portland, Maine, to Richmond, Va.
Montana's rebellious streak has always been visible when it comes to conforming with federal highway safety demands. More than two decades ago, legislators railed against the federally imposed speed limit of 55 mph by making violations punishable by just a $5 fine.
And for three years after the 55 mph speed limit disappeared, Montana drivers were allowed to go as fast as they wanted on most highways, as long as it was "reasonable and proper" based on conditions and traffic.
Statistics suggest driving in Montana is becoming increasingly dangerous. Montana's highway traffic fatality toll for 2002 -- at 268 -- was the highest in nearly two decades, state officials say. Fatal highway crashes involving alcohol have jumped more than 30 percent in the first four months of 2003, compared with the same period last year.
And Montana remains the only state to flunk a 2002 study of drunken-driving laws sponsored by MADD. Officials said it was the first time a state received an "F" since MADD began rankings a decade ago.
While the Montana Legislature has refused to ban open containers, it did strengthen other laws dealing with drinking and driving this session. It lowered the blood-alcohol limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent and made alcohol tests mandatory for drivers after serious accidents.
It also increased fines and jail time for drunken-driving convictions.
But lawmakers are expected to wrap up the session this week without taking on open containers.
Muhs noted that Montana was one of the last states to raise the legal drinking age to 21.
Â© 1998-2003 Seattle Post-Intelligencer