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Where Six-Packs Still Ride Shotgun

For many in Montana, the right to drink and drive is central to their way of life. The latest attempt to outlaw the practice is voted down.

May 06, 2003|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

HELENA, Mont. — To Andrew Vandaele, the right to drink and drive is as fundamental as the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And if you don't agree, well, nobody's forcing you to stay in Montana.

Vandaele, 68, is a retired refrigerator repairman, a lifelong Montanan and self-described "regular guy." He has sipped and steered his entire adult life and says he doesn't plan to change.

"I'm driving home from the lake. It's hot. I pop a beer. As long as I'm not drunk, what's wrong with that?" Vandaele says. He's never hurt anybody. There was the night in 1968, coming home from a Christmas party, where he got a DUI, but even then, he says, he was never out of control. At least not that he remembers.

He and thousands of like-minded Montanans, including some leading legislators, are a main reason why some drunk-driving laws can't find traction in Big Sky country. Such laws are seen as an infringement on the state's live-and-let-live spirit, an attitude one legislator sums up as the region's "cowboy culture."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday May 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 86 words Type of Material: Correction
Montana -- An article Tuesday in Section A about drinking and driving identified Montana's major cities as Bozeman, Helena, Billings and Butte. That list omitted Missoula and Great Falls, which are the state's second- and third-largest cities. It also said that half of the state's population lives in the largest cities; in fact, 32% of the population lives in those six cities. The story also said that Butte has a law banning open containers of alcohol in cars. That city does not have such a law.

Even a leader of the state's Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter, Bill Muhs, who's lived in Montana for two decades, concedes the cultural aspect.

"There are still people here who measure distances in six-packs," Muhs says. "Bozeman to Billings is a six-pack drive. Bozeman to Montana City is a two six-pack trip. Crossing the state would be a whole case."

The latest collision of law versus culture took place last month when a MADD-supported bill banning open alcohol containers in vehicles was voted down despite vigorous lobbying from Gov. Judy Martz.

Federal agencies report that 36 states and Washington, D.C., have laws banning open containers of alcohol in cars, and an additional 11 states ban drinking while driving.

Montana, Wyoming and Mississippi are the only states with no federally approved law prohibiting the practice, and, not coincidentally, these states have among the highest numbers of per capita traffic fatalities involving alcohol.

Montana's major cities -- Bozeman, Billings, Butte and Helena -- have open-container laws that apply within city limits, and half the state's population lives in these cities. This helps explain why a 1999 survey found that 74% of Montana residents believed the state already had such a law.

But once you leave the cities, you can open a bottle of any kind of alcohol and drink it while tooling down the highway. And most of Montana's 70,000 miles of paved roads are open highway. With fewer than 1 million people living in an area larger than Germany, Montana is one of the most sparsely populated states in the country. Driving is a necessity.

Those long sections of open road, which seduce many drivers to speed or drink, or both, are part of the problem because they create an illusion of safety, says Muhs of MADD, who lost a 20-year-old daughter to a teenage drunk driver.

The most common fatal accident in the state involves one car losing control and rolling over. In the case of Muhs' daughter, Anne Marie, it was a case of one motorist losing control and plowing into a young woman riding a bicycle to work.

According to national highway statistics, Montana is second only to Mississippi for alcohol-related traffic deaths per 100,000 people. Last year in Montana, nearly 270 people were killed in traffic accidents, and up to 47% of those accidents involved alcohol. The national average is 39%. In California it's 37%.

"You remember what Mark Twain said about statistics?" says state Rep. Jim Shockley, a Republican from the town of Victor (population 400). "He said something like, 'There are lies, there are damn lies, and there are statistics.' You can get statistics to do anything you want."

Shockley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, made sure the open-container bill did not make it out of his committee for a vote. He says many legislators would have voted for the bill merely to be politically correct.

A retired Marine and the only lawyer in his hometown, Shockley is depicted by MADD officials as one of the Wild West characters who defends the culture of drinking. The 58-year-old legislator doesn't mind the characterization.

Like many Montanans, he's an avid outdoorsman. He hunts, hikes and rides his mules into the mountains. He made minor national news two years ago when he fell off his mule, broke seven ribs and punctured a lung. The accident almost killed him.

But rough-and-tough living is what Montana is all about, he says. For someone to tell him it's wrong, after a day of hunting or hiking in the hot sun, to pop open a beer in his pickup -- "Well, that's just too much," he says. It's nobody else's business.

"People say it's [drinking] part of the culture, and I think it is," Shockley says. "As long as you're sober, I don't see the problem. It's not the government's role to tell us what our culture is. The government should reflect the culture, not the other way around.

"If they don't like our culture," he says, "they can go somewhere else."

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