Under the influence 

The 2011 Legislature has taken aim at drunk driving. But Montana's drinking culture may be too much for lawmakers to take down.

The sign behind the bar at Miller's Crossing on Park Avenue in Helena clearly states the watering hole's right to refuse service to anyone who appears intoxicated. And on a recent Friday night, it's a right seven-year bartender Eric Blewett isn't afraid to enforce. Some of his patrons appear just a few drinks away from the slurred speech and shuffling demeanor that signal an altered state of mind. Perhaps they have designated drivers or plan on walking, Blewett says, but better he cuts them short and calls a cab than risk them navigating the road home impaired.

"I'm all for not having people out drunk on the roads," Blewett says. "That's the last thing I want. My goal is to let people come down, have a fun time with us and get home safe."

Tonight that includes a throng of state legislators, lobbyists, legislative aides and members of the press. The majority of those at the bar have arrived to unwind after a grueling week of committee hearings and testimony, and to brace themselves for a Saturday morning dominated by floor sessions and votes. Tables and booths are crammed with a who's who of prominent political figures, from freshman legislators to Republican heavy-hitters—too many to run down name by name.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER

This scene isn't unlike the packed confines of the Kettlehouse or Sean Kelly's, where the five o'clock bell ushers in a sea of post-work shop-talk, friendly debate and casual griping. Conversation starts and ends with a pitcher of beer or a gin and tonic; libation is very much the means of relaxation. But there's a palpable sense of self-discipline here. With so many at Miller's tied closely to the glut of DUI bills now cycling through the Montana Legislature, the pressure to adhere to legal limits and safe drinking seems concentrated. That's not to say the party isn't going strong. It's every bit a slice of Montana's after-hours culture.

"I think people who don't know them have this mystique, like, 'Oh, they're legislators,'" Blewett says. "But they're really good at—if one of them is going to drink—making sure they have a driver. They're like us."

The atmosphere isn't confined to Miller's either. Popular Helena haunts like Blackfoot Brewing, the Windbag, Jorgenson's Restaurant and Lounge and the Silver Star Steak Company all draw the Capitol crowd. The legislative session's nightlife serves as something of a legend in Montana; Gov. Brian Schweitzer went so far as to characterize the state's lawmakers as "the biggest boozers" last December, citing a 24 percent spike in alcohol sales in Helena recorded by the Department of Revenue during the 2009 session. Legislators rankled at Schweitzer's seeming disrespect. Rep. Walter McNutt, R-Sidney, called the governor's comment a "pretty cheap shot." Others loudly defended their presence in Helena as an effort to do good work on behalf of their constituents.

But the Department of Revenue's data—and the crowded nature of Helena bars throughout the session—appear to support Schweitzer's statement. The need for a multi-layered crackdown on DUI offenses in Montana is widely recognized; many state lawmakers believe it may be one of the only issues this session that transcends the party divide. Montana has ranked among the worst states in the nation for DUI convictions and DUI-related traffic fatalities for decades. According to data from the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT), the state has maintained a roadside fatality rate above the national average since 1966. In 2009, 69 percent of all roadside fatalities resulted from one-vehicle accidents, and 10.2 percent of those crashes involved alcohol or drugs.

click to enlarge Rep. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre, has introduced a bill this session to make a third DUI offense in Montana a felony. Hansen says the move could help interrupt the pattern of behavior that leads to repeat drunk drivers. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Rep. Kristin Hansen, R-Havre, has introduced a bill this session to make a third DUI offense in Montana a felony. Hansen says the move could help interrupt the pattern of behavior that leads to repeat drunk drivers.

The staggering statistics prompted the last Montana Legislature to order an interim study on what lawmakers could do to curb drunk driving. Yet the Legislature itself has over the years displayed a fairly troubling track record for alcohol abuses, in and out of session. Only this January, Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, was caught with an open container of red beer outside Missoula while driving home from Helena. The state's lawmakers—just like the state's citizens—aren't all saints when it comes to drinking and driving.

"I think it just shows that we're a pretty good cross-section or slice of humanity for Montana here," says Sen. Larry Jent, D-Bozeman. "You get 150 people and have them spend four months here, it's like a medium-sized high school."

•••

Montana boasts some of the most disquieting DUI statistics in the nation. In 2009 alone, 105 of the state's 221 traffic fatalities were linked to drunk driving, the third highest rate in the country. Law enforcement officers arrested 4,373 impaired drivers that year. The estimated economic impact of alcohol abuse to the state of Montana rests around $500 million annually, according to an unprecedented study conducted in 2009 by the University of Montana's Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), a 30-year-old national nonprofit dedicated to combating alcohol abuse, regularly ranks Montana among the 10 worst states in the nation for DUI-related offenses and fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration named Montana the deadliest state in the country for drunk driving accidents in 2008, with a fatality rate more than double the national average; that distinction came despite a decline in the DUI death rate from 2007. Many of those taking their own lives and the lives of others in hand have already established a pattern of behavior when it comes to drinking and driving.

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