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Drunk driving fatalities on the increase in Montana

Last year the Montana Legislature enacted several tough laws intended to save lives by deterring drunk driving in the state. The laws included a no-nonsense 24/7 monitoring program, increased penalties and greater police authority. Unfortunately, in late August the Montana Department of Transportation released some disheartening news: fatalities in alcohol-related car accidents have increased this year over the same time last year.

Tragically, DUI-related deaths have increased by about a third since last summer. Last year at this time there had been 23 alcohol-fueled fatalities on Montana roads; so far this year there have been 36.

The increase is probably not due to an absence of tough laws; the new laws passed in 2011 are extremely unforgiving to drunk drivers. The 24/7 monitoring program, for example, requires repeat offenders to blow into a breathalyzer twice a day, everyday. Despite the frustrating lack of measurable results, Montana's attorney general remains convinced the 24/7 program is a "game changer" that deters innumerable repeat drunk drivers from getting behind the wheel. The Legislature also imposed stiffer penalties for drivers testing at more than twice the legal limit, and gave police the power to obtain a warrant to conduct a blood alcohol test.

A high-ranking officer of the Montana Highway Patrol says one reason the fight against drunk drivers is so difficult is the inability of a limited number of state troopers to cover every mile of highway in the state. He said another reform that would reduce fatalities would be a mandatory seat belt law.

Despite the best efforts of Montana's legislature, courts and police officers, it appears the scourge of drunk driving will be with us for some time. And while criminal penalties will probably always be the first line of defense, the civil justice system can also play an important part in redressing the harm caused. The victims of drunk driving or their families have the right to bring a civil lawsuit and seek monetary compensation for their loss. Punitive damages, which are designed to punish the defendant and deter others, will also be available in many if not most drunk driving accident cases. We can only hope that the combination of civil and criminal sanctions will begin to reduce the carnage on our state's roads.

Source: KXLH.com, "Alcohol related vehicle deaths increase in Montana," Marnee Banks, Aug. 29, 2012

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