By TED SULLIVAN, Chronicle staff Writer and MSU NEWS SERVICE
Recent research has found that Montanans are more concerned than most Americans about people driving drunk or high.
A statewide survey indicates that 94 percent of Montanans believe driving while impaired is a crucial issue, while a national survey showed that 88 percent of Americans felt that way, said Jeff Linkenbach, director of MOST of Us, a health promotion research group at Montana State University.
“The results show that Montanans understand that driving impaired is a very serious problem, and that our support for law enforcement is strong,” Linkenbach said.
Impaired driving in both surveys was defined as blood-alcohol content above the legal limit or impairment by the use of legal or illegal drugs. The surveys, of 404 Montanans and 1,200 people across the United States, were conducted by telephone in 2006 under a grant from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
In addition to the worries about impaired driving, the research indicates that Montanans are more likely than their counterparts nationwide to think that current impaired-driving laws and penalties are ineffective at deterring and punishing offenders.
“From the police department’s perspective, we are glad that 94 percent of our citizens think DUIs are an important concern,” said Bozeman Police Lt. Rich McLane.
Attitudes about drunken driving have changed in the past several years, McLane said. It used to be much more acceptable to drive under the influence, but now more drinkers plan ahead to have a designated driver, call a taxi or make other arrangements in lieu of driving impaired, he said.
Yet many people still make the mistake of getting behind a car after drinking, said Jenna Caplette, coordinator for the Gallatin County DUI Task Force.
“I don’t think people go out and plan to drive drunk – it happens,” Caplette said.
McLane said people under the influence don’t use the best judgment: “They think they’re OK to drive Š but they’re past the line already.”
Caplette said 956 people were arrested for drunken driving in Gallatin County last year, and the Task Force estimates that for every arrest made there are at least 1,000 DUI incidents.
The Task Force also reports that of the 22 fatal crashes in Gallatin County last year, eight involved alcohol.
The Montana State Highway Patrol cited 2,564 drivers for drunken driving in 2006, and issued 85,437 tickets. The patrol’s annual report states that 28 percent of drivers in fatal crashes, and 6 percent of drivers in all crashes, last year were under the influence of alcohol.
McLane said stiffer penalties are needed for DUI offenders. He said a new county jail would help punish intoxicated drivers who are now being released with citations. He also said more laws such as the ban on having open containers in vehicles, which the Legislature passed two years ago, would help.
The MOST of Us research, available online at mostofus.org, also indicates that six out of 10 Montanans would only vote for a candidate for state Legislature who supports increased and highly visible impaired-driving law enforcement.
Other findings from the two surveys include:
– 91 percent of Montanans and 92 percent of Americans described themselves as supportive of law enforcement.
– Adult Montanans were statistically more likely to think that law-enforcement officers were generally trustworthy and honest than adults nationally.
– 63 percent of Montana adults believed that if someone in their community were to drive while impaired, the chances were high they would harm themselves or someone else, or damage vehicles or property.
– 45 percent of Montana adults believed the chances were high that they or someone they care about might be harmed by an impaired driver.