- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 23, 2003

HELENA, Mont.

Montana lawmakers are about to go home for the year without banning open liquor containers in cars and trucks, a decision one activist against drunken driving blames on the state’s cowboy culture.

“I think there’s still perhaps some carry-over from people whose view is their individual rights are being trampled on,” said Bill Muhs, president of a local chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The National Conference of State Legislatures says 13 states do not have open-container bans that meet federal standards. Mr. Muhs said the bans are cheap and effective ways to reduce drunken driving, but critics have stalled efforts at the Montana Capitol to enact a ban by raising the specter of increasing police power.

Republican state Rep. Jim Shockley, who has led the push against a ban, said it would be mostly a feel-good measure. He suggested greater enforcement of laws already on the books would do more to curb drunken driving.

Mr. Shockley also said advocates of tougher restrictions shouldn’t try to change Montanans’ attitudes about drinking and driving.

“It’s not their business to change our culture,” Mr. Shockley said. “If they don’t like our culture, they should go somewhere else.”

Driving is a necessity in Montana, the fourth-largest state geographically. Driving 550 miles from North Dakota to Idaho is the equivalent of driving from Portland, Maine, to Richmond.

Montana’s rebellious streak always has been visible when it comes to conforming with federal highway safety demands.

More than two decades ago, legislators railed against the federally imposed speed limit of 55 mph by making violations punishable by just a $5 fine.

For three years after the 55 mph speed limit disappeared, Montana drivers were allowed to go as fast as they wanted on most highways, as long as it was “reasonable and proper” based on conditions and traffic.

Statistics suggest driving in Montana is becoming increasingly dangerous. Montana’s highway traffic fatality toll for 2002 at 268 was the highest in nearly two decades, state officials said. Fatal highway crashes involving alcohol have jumped more than 30 percent between the first four months of 2002 and 2003.

Montana remains the only state to flunk a 2002 examination of drunken-driving laws sponsored by MADD. Officials said it was the first time a state had received an F grade since MADD began rankings a decade ago.

While the Montana Legislative Assembly refused to ban open containers, it did strengthen other laws dealing with drinking and driving this session. It lowered the blood-alcohol limit from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent and made alcohol tests mandatory for drivers after serious accidents. It also increased fines and jail time for drunken-driving convictions.

But lawmakers are expected to wrap up the session this week without taking on open containers.

Mr. Muhs said his job always has been tougher than those of his counterparts in most other states. After all, he noted, Montana was one of the last states to raise the legal drinking age to 21.

“So here we are, the last state to enact some of the most fundamental drunken-driving laws,” Mr. Muhs said.


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