Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Drunk-Driving Deaths Test Wild West Mentality

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Drunk-Driving Deaths Test Wild West Mentality

Article excerpt

Last August, a group of prominent Montana Republicans met at a restaurant and bar near Helena, the state capital. At the end of a night of eating and drinking, two young standouts, House majority leader Paul Sliter and his friend Shane Hedges, an aide to Gov. Judy Martz, piled into Hedges' SUV. But Hedges was too drunk to be driving: His SUV rolled over, killing Mr. Sliter in the crash.

Sliter's high-profile death was an all-too-familiar a scenario in Montana. Stretching across the high plains and curving through the mountains, Montana's roads regularly rank among the nation's deadliest. Per capita, twice as many people die as a result of drunk drivers in Montana than in the country as a whole. But even as some Montanans lobby for more stringent measures to crack down on drunk driving, others remain leery of top-down authority. In a state where "rugged individualism" is a common credo, many advocate a more laissez-faire attitude toward personal responsibility when it comes to drinking and driving.

"Montanans don't like to be told what to do," says Galen Hollenbaugh, a top aide to Attorney General Mike McGrath.

A "Wild West mentality" has certainly played a role in contributing to the number of accidents caused by drinking and driving, agrees Robert Weltzer of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's regional office in Lakewood, Colo. Compounding the dangers are other factors such as higher speed limits, the lack of a primary seatbelt law, and unpredictable weather, says Mr. Weltzer.

While deaths caused by drunk drivers are creeping back up nationwide for the first time in 15 years, Montana's rates of death by drunk drivers remained consistently high throughout that period. "It's a serious problem here. No question," says Jack Williams, a statistician at the Montana Highway Patrol.

Last session, the state legislature, completely cut the funding of county Driving Under the Influence prevention programs. And despite being stunned by the death of one of its own, a leading Republican on the budget committee told the Billings Gazette that he did not think government ought to address issues like drunk driving. …

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