MISSOULA — A legislative committee at the Montana State Legislature in Helena tabled the latest DUI bill under consideration earlier this week.
House Republican Bill Mercer's bill would have done several things that includes increasing punishment options for repeat DUI offenders and mandatory prison time after a seventh conviction. It follows another DUI penalty law that also got voted down that would have imposed more monitoring and restrictions after a second DUI conviction.
There are existing laws and programs out there to stop drunken drivers on Montana roads but they are laws that are far too often, broken, which is frustrating for law enforcement.
"Every DUI starts the same," said Missoula County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Josh Volinkaty, who has been in law enforcement for more than a decade and has pulled over his share of impaired drivers.
Many are routine arrests, according to Volinkaty: "They'll admit they’ve over the limit but won’t admit or recognize that them being over the limit is dangerous."
Then there is the danger you don’t see.
“I have read studies that say people have driven 80 times before they’re ever caught. So for the person who has three, or four, five DUIs on his record, it’s not unreasonable to think they’ve driven drunk thousands of times," Volinkaty added.
Statistics from the Montana Department of Justice show there have been 57 deaths on Montana roads this year and 27 are related to impaired driving. Meanwhile, figures from the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office show in 2019 there were 192 citations or arrests for impaired driving. So far this year, the county is up to 27.
Years ago, the state launched a program called Vision Zero with a goal to eliminate all traffic facilities on Montana roads.
The Drive Safe Missoula program is part of that and home for the DUI task force and the Buckle UP Montana Coalition to improve highway safety on all levels, from seatbelts to sobriety. It’s the latter that’s been a struggle in this state.
"Montana is one of the worst states, if not the worst state, in the entire U.S. as far as driving drunk, intoxicated or impaired. Vision Zero is possible, but we need people to one, be in control of their choices, and two to choose to drive sober," Steve Schmidt with Drive Safe Missoula told MTN News.
Schmidt says Drive Safe Missoula addresses those dangers on the road, especially those we can control. And with a chronic problem of impaired driving, maybe there’s a better way to reach those who just don’t get it.
"The Center for Health and Safety Culture out of Bozeman is really focusing on the entire messaging for DUI prevention to get away from the authoritative 'drive sober or get pulled over' message," Schmidt said.
"They're really trying to avoid that. It causes psychological reactants where people are like "don’t tell me what to do!" he continued. "We can formulate a narrative where to people can make their own choices and really understand not just what’s in it for them but what it's in for the community as a whole to drive sober."
The goal is to stop drunken driving and the death and injuries they so often cause; it's something always on the minds of law enforcement.
"It's painful to arrest the same person over and over again for DUI and it does not appear they are going to change and at some point in time you wonder why? And you wonder if there’s anything else you can do to change that," Volinkaty said. "And ultimately, it becomes normal and you internalize it as that’s the way it is and that is an unsafe place for the public to be and an unsafe place for law enforcement to be."
Some people can't tell if they've had too much to drink and think they're fine but wind up driving drunk and that can have all kinds of terrible consequences. But there is something that can really help.
More than a dozen bars in Missoula sell ‘think twice’ single-use Breathalyzers. They are $2 and you blow into them after a night of drinking and will tell you if you’re too drunk to drive by measuring your BAC. It stops at .08 which is the threshold for drunk driving.