One of the most troubling state rankings for Montana is that of the rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Depending on the year, this state is nearly always in the top two or three. In 2016, there were 8.2 such deaths per 100,000 people in Montana – tops in the nation. The average was 3.3 per 100,000 average for all states.

Those numbers are not lost on DUI activists who consistently say Montana’s DUI laws are among the most lax. A recent Chronicle report on the issue indicated those activists will be twisting arms in Helena next month, urging lawmakers to toughen DUI penalties.

The state Department of Justice is proposing legislation to close loopholes in the law that allow repeat offenders to get off with light sentences and provide for closer monitoring of convicted offenders to ensure they are not drinking. But a spokesman for the DOJ makes a good point when he argues it’s not just about stiffer penalties. Tackling the drunk-driving issue means “trying to change a culture that seems to accept DUI.”

It’s true that Montana has a history of looking the other way on drinking and driving issues. And there’s always pushback when stricter laws are proposed. Those attitudes are hard to change.

While lawmakers are certainly urged to look at stiffer penalties, more vigilant and mandatory monitoring of convicted offenders with breathalyzer-blocked car ignition systems in cars and mandated twice-a-day breathalyzer tests may yield better results.

To their credit, tavern owners have taken steps to address the issue with a pilot program in Helena that provides free Uber rides for customers. In Great Falls, bar owners bought a bus that runs a circuit delivering customers to and from bars. But while those measures may have an impact in cities, they aren’t an option in small towns and rural areas.

Also effective might be stepped up efforts at teaching high school students about DUI – not just the consequences of drinking and driving but also strategies for socializing without driving at all.

Lawmakers are urged to conduct research on monitoring methods and penalties that have been effective in other states. And they are also urged to let go of the old ways of thinking and be open to new ideas.

This is one area where we don’t want to be No. 1.

Editorial Board

  • Mark Dobie, publisher
  • Nick Ehli, managing editor
  • Bill Wilke, opinion page editor
  • Richard Broome, community member
  • Renee Gavin, community member
  • Will Swearingen, community member
  • Angie Wasia, community member

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