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Culture And Education Are The Keys To Curbing DUIs, State Officials Say

Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial says Montanan’s culture of drinking is a learned behavior.
Corin Cates-Carney
Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial says Montanan’s culture of drinking is a learned behavior.";

Flathead County ranks among the highest in Montana in traffic deaths, behind Yellowstone County and ahead of Missoula County.

One hundred eighty four people died on Flathead County roads between 2004 and 2013.

Nearly half of the deaths in all three counties involved a driver under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

On Tuesday, Montana Department of Transportation Director Mike Tooley spoke at Whitefish City beach. Tooley stressed the importance of wearing a seatbelt, and not driving drunk. As of 2015, fines increased for drivers cited with DUI.

"In May, Governor Bullock signed into law House Bill 488, which doubled Montana’s DUI fines," Tooley explained. "Before this, Montana’s DUI fines were among the lowest in the nation and hadn’t been changed since the 1980s."

Tooley says with the changes in law, Montana is in the middle of the pack nationally in DUI penalties. He says the reminder of safe driving is important now as families prepare to celebrate the July 4  holiday, and DUI task forces step up.

"Last year the safety enforcement traffic team worked hard to make a difference during the 4th of July and other holidays. The team made 448 DUI and drug arrests, an increase of over 160 percent over 2013 arrests."

Tooley says the higher fines put in place by the legislature will make people reconsider drinking and driving, but he says Montana needs to change something very fundamental about it’s culture.

"Culture is an important part of any of this, and I can tell you that Montana’s culture has traditionally been one of drinking."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012 Montana ranked first, tied with Nebraska, in the percentage of adults who report driving after drinking too much. Montana ranked second in drunk driving death rates.

Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial says Montana’s culture of drinking is a learned behavior.

"If parents say it's okay to drink, underage people are going to drink and they're going to drink irresponsibly. So it’s just a culture change and paradigm change that we need to initiate in this state."

Dial says that change will take place in education.

"We have a school resource officer here, Columbia falls, Kalispell and the county all as school resource officers. And it is imperative in the community. We have a drug force task officer who goes and talks to kids in elementary schools all they way through high schools about the effect and dangers of drugs. Alcohol being one of the biggest drugs, they talk about that."

The Montana Department of Transportation started the Plan 2 Live campaign to help educate the public on the consequences of drunk driving. That campaign makes the scared straight type videos you might have seen on TV.

[AUDIO FROM VIDEO]: "My son made me sit here... Made me identify his body… Made me answer the door..."

As of June 15, six people have died in car crashes in Flathead County. That’s four more than in the same period of time last year.

In Flathead County an average of nine people a year die as a result of drunk driving.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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