While most Montana bars are busy keeping their patrons from smoking, Whitefish bar owners may be keeping a closer eye on their patrons’ drinking. This year, Whitefish registered a 100-percent increase in DUIs, from 55 to 110, and Whitefish police have seized on that statistic to try to pry local bars to rein in their customers. At the end of October, Police Chief Bill Dial notified local bar owners that officers will now record where drunks were drinking before they received DUIs. If a particular bar’s name turns up routinely, that information will be passed on to the Montana Department of Revenue, which issues liquor licenses. Dial readily admits that the rise in DUIs may not be the result of lax bar staff. He acknowledges that before this year Whitefish’s police department was understaffed, and so the increase in DUIs could be a reflection of better enforcement.
Still, Dial says, bar owners can help decrease DUIs by not “over-serving” patrons. It is illegal in Montana for bartenders to serve the “obviously intoxicated.” But Jim Flanagan, owner of Flanagan’s Central Station in downtown Whitefish, says there are problems with the new approach.
For one thing, he notes, police will be relying on the word (and the memory) of intoxicated persons as to what bar they were at before they got their DUIs.
But Dial says police will only report bars that appear to be repeat offenders. But whether or not his new approach has any teeth remains to be seen. The Department of Revenue has never used such information in considering liquor licensure in the past. According to a spokesperson, it’s usually incumbent on patrons, not bars, to avoid driving drunk.