Using tactics that both Montana's senators have publicly assailed, the federal government is tying changes in current alcohol-related driving regulations to federal highway funding. If the law passes, those states that won't change their ways will lose money. Montana is looking at the loss of $60 million a few years down the road unless the legislature lowers the blood-alcohol content limit for driving from 0.10 to 0.08, outlaws open containers in cars, and instates mandatory minimum sentences for habitual DUI offenders.
Missoula Police Chief Pete Lawrenson says he sees little sense for the change in DUI policy because an arrest at the current 0.10 standard is already rare. The average percent in Missoula, he says, is 0.17 percent.
"DUI is a high priority for us but I honestly don't know what the real benefit of this change could be right now," Lawrenson says. "This is targeting a more select group-the young rather than the hard-core drinkers who are the real problem. I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon just yet."
Albert Goke, chief of the Montana Traffic Safety Bureau, also finds little value in the proposed change and, like many, chides Congress' proposed sanctions.
"My general feeling is that a change would not make any significant difference to any Montanan," he says. "But what I don't like is how they're doing this. They should give states some extra money to do it instead of this dang penalty method; that would be more effective."
The problem, says Missoula County Attorney and U.S. House candidate Robert "Dusty" Deschamps, is that the average DUI offender in Montana has a blood-alcohol content of 0.18. Most drivers, especially habitual offenders and non-social drinkers, he says, tend to exhibit the most obvious signs of inebriation at higher than the current legal levels. He says it will be even more difficult to recognize scofflaws at the new proposed level.
"The feds need to keep their noses out of our business. This is just another example of federal blackmail," Deschamps says. "This is certainly not a change that would be high on my priority list.
"This is not a law that makes a lot of sense to me-it's a paper tiger. Most cases we see are well over 0.10... This just isn't going to help. It's going to be harder to find offenders."
In Montana, police need probable cause to stop motorists and administer field sobriety tests. This means that so-called "incidental" discovery, authorities say, such as accident investigations and traffic stops prompted by other factors, will the most common means of detection.
One person who supports the lower DUI limit is Sgt. Kenton Hickethier, of the Montana Highway Patrol, who also is a member of the Missoula Traffic Safety Task Force. He says the proposed law's impact will be in the psychological realm-that people who realize the limit has been lowered will police themselves more strictly.
"There are a significant number of people who drive over the limit," Hickethier says. "We need stronger deterrents, like this, to keep people from behind the wheel. I think more people will be afraid of the consequences if it's lower and not take the risk."
The change would mean that an average 160-pound man drinking on an empty stomach would be considered legally drunk after consuming four "typical" drinks such as 12-ounce beers or 5-ounce glasses of wine in one hour, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data. He would reach the same level after just two Martinis or Manhattans in the same hour. A 120-pound woman would reach 0.08 percent blood-alcohol content after 2.5 "typical" drinks.
Though the future of the amendments remain unclear, Goke personally believes they are unlikely to pass in the House. If so, ratification will depend upon whether the conference committee can mediate an agreement between the House and the Senate.
Specifically, Montana stands to lose 5 percent of its federal highway allotment in 2001 and then 10 percent in 2002 unless it conforms to the proposed national standard. Goke estimates Montana received about $150 million this year and says the Department of Transportation has calculated that in a worst-case scenario, the amendments could mean a loss of $60 million in the early years of the next millennium.
Had a couple of double-vodka tonics in the last hour? Under changes proposed by the U.S. Senate, you would be legally too drunk to drive. Jeff Powers