HELENA, Mont. — Loose laws and a cowboy culture that condones drinking behind the wheel are being blamed for a disturbing fact in Big Sky country: People on Montana's roads are more likely to die in alcohol-related crashes than motorists in almost any other state.
In 2000, Montana had the nation's second-highest rate of alcohol-related traffic deaths, trailing only Mississippi.
"There's a cultural element in Montana that drinking's OK and drinking and driving's OK. It's been around for a long time," said Bill Muhs of Bozeman, whose daughter was killed by a drunken driver 11 years ago.
Driving in the Big Sky State is a necessity. Montana, the fourth-largest state in area, spans 300 miles between Wyoming and the Canadian border. Driving the 550 miles across Montana is like going from Portland, Maine, to Richmond, Va.
For more than three years during the 1990s, Montana drivers were allowed to go as fast as they wanted as long as it was "reasonable and proper" based on traffic, road conditions and weather. It was only two years ago that speed limits were added to the state's 70,000 miles of highway.
Montana has resisted lowering its legal blood-alcohol limit from 0.10% to 0.08%, as more than half the states have done.
And unlike 34 other states, Montana allows open alcoholic-beverage containers in vehicles outside cities, which means drivers can--and do--have a beer while they cruise the long highways.
"In your rural areas of the West, there's an attitude that drinking is a right and you should be able to drink and do whatever you want to do," said Mona Sumner, clinical director of the Rimrock Foundation rehab center in Billings.
In 2000 in Montana, population 902,000, 110 people died in alcohol-related traffic accidents. Over the last seven years, the death toll has averaged just over 100 a year.
The rate of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in Montana in 2000 was 12.19 deaths per 100,000 residents, just behind Mississippi at 13.32. In 1999, Montana had the nation's highest alcohol-related traffic death rate per 100 million miles traveled, at 1.05.
Warren Strain of Mississippi's Department of Public Safety said his state's 0.10% limit and its lack of an open-container law are major factors in Mississippi's death toll. "We feel action in these two areas would go a long way toward changing this terrible statistic," he said.
Drunken-driving penalties in Montana range from a $100 fine and 24 hours in jail for a first conviction to a $10,000 fine and 13 months in prison for a fourth conviction. A first-time conviction results in the loss of a driver's license for six months--with exceptions available for work--and requires enrollment in an alcohol-treatment program.
Muhs, vice president of a local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, wants a ban on open containers and a drop in the legal limit to 0.08%.
The federal government is turning up the pressure by withholding highway construction money. Montana already is losing $11 million every year because it has refused to ban open containers or get tougher on repeat offenders. The state could also lose an additional $15 million a year if the legal limit is not lowered to 0.08%.
Montana Atty. Gen. Mike McGrath and Al Goke, chief of Montana's Traffic and Safety Bureau, question whether lowering the legal limit will do much good, since the average blood-alcohol level of those arrested is 0.17%.