Drugs and alcohol are involved in far too many fatal crashes on Montana roadways.

According to statistics from the Montana Department of Justice, about 54 percent of the fatal crashes that occurred in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Broadwater counties from 2013-2017 involved a driver under the influence. Statewide, about 51 percent of drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2017 and 2018 were impaired.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving consistently lists our state dead last in its annual ranking of drunken-driving laws, noting “Montana has done little to reduce drunk driving starting on the first offense, since the enactment of a .08 BAC per se law in 2003.”

But the Department of Justice is working to change that.

At the request of the Montana Attorney General’s Office, Republican Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell introduced a bill that would save lives by strengthening our state’s DUI laws. Senate Bill 65 passed out of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee Wednesday and will now go to the Senate floor for consideration.

DOJ statistics show that 3,889 drivers were convicted of DUI for the first time and only 864 were convicted of DUI for the second time in 2017, which shows that people are unlikely to repeat the same mistake after their first conviction. However, many people who are arrested for their first DUI never end up with a conviction because existing laws prevent officers from obtaining evidence even if probable cause exists.

More than one in four of the 7,729 people arrested for DUI in 2017 refused to take a breath test, DOJ statistics show. Although officers are allowed to seek a search warrant to take a blood sample from drivers with a prior DUI conviction, state law prohibits them from taking blood from those suspected of driving under the influence for the first time.

SB 65 would allow officers to apply for a search warrant to take blood from all DUI suspects, even those with no prior convictions, which would hold more people accountable for driving impaired and help deter them from doing it again.

Additionally, the bill would provide more treatment to DUI offenders. Those with one or two convictions would be required to complete an evidence-based intervention even they are not found to have a chemical use disorder, and those with three convictions would be sentenced to DUI or drug treatment court, inpatient or outpatient treatment, or an alternative approved by the court.

The bill would also enhance the penalties for serial DUI offenders, including up to 10 years in prison for a fifth offense and up to 25 years in prison for a sixth or subsequent offense.

According to Attorney General Tim Fox, this legislation is not intended to penalize responsible alcohol consumers who enjoy a beer or a glass of wine with dinner. It is intended to protect Montanans from those who cannot control their addictions and to get them the help they desperately need.

When it comes to addiction, acknowledging the problem is the first step toward recovery. It’s time to recognize that Montana has a DUI problem and start the recovery process by passing this important legislation.

The bill is expected to hit the Senate floor early next week, and we hope our readers and our elected leaders will join us in supporting it.

This is the opinion of the Independent Record editorial board. 

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