MATT GOURAS Associated Press Writer
HELENA State police have a new weapon against the “Wild West” drinking and driving culture in Montana a big, black DUI paddy wagon that promises to crack down on drunken drivers at big events. Year after year, Montana ranks at or near the top for alcohol-related traffic deaths. Police have been looking for ways to reduce the problem such as finally getting a ban in 2005 on open containers in cars driving the highway. But drunken drivers are still a big problem. “I think there is a culture in this state, it was the Wild West way back when, that says you worked hard and you partied hard.’ That culture has continued on,” said Col. Paul Grimstad, who runs the Montana Highway Patrol. “That culture has been pretty heavy in Montana and these rural states. That’s just the way the society has been. “I think it’s changing but it’s a slow process.” The so-called Mobile Impaired Driving Assessment Center, the brainchild of Grimstad and others on the force, could help. The Patrol just took delivery of it late last month and hopes to start using it by the middle of summer. The patrol plans to bring it to major events in rural areas that are miles from the jails. Concerts, rodeos, and even the famed Testicle Festival near Missoula could all be targeted, police said. First, it will stand as an imposing 40- foot long reminder that the Highway Patrol is on duty. “We didn’t just want it to blend in,” said Sgt. Steve Baiamonte, the Highway Patrol’s DUI coordinator. “We want the public to know it’s out there.” For those who still get behind the wheel drunk, it will mean many more of them will get arrested. Police used to spend up to four hours processing one drunk driving arrest at big venues that are often a long way from a police station. By deploying the drunken driving arrest center at big events, such as rock concerts, police say they will be able to arrest more drunken drivers. Hopefully, this will cut into a big problem in Montana, Grimstad said. Each year, the state suffers 100 to 130 alcohol related fatalities each year in Montana, the Highway Patrol said. Montana has had the highest alcohol related fatality rate during three of the last four years, according to statistics from the state Department of Transportation. Even though the Montana Highway Patrol thought of the idea when confronted with the problem of long drives to the police station, the idea is not new. At least a few other states have a similar vehicle. The Montana vehicle is 40 feet long and was made by Nomad Technologies of Kalispell. The Mobile Impaired Driving Assessment Center was bought with a $250,000 federal grant secured by the state Department of Transportation. The Patrol plans to man it with two officers. Officers in patrol vehicles will stop drunken driving suspects and bring them to the Center, where they will be tested and given citations. The vehicle has its own testing station, an Intoxilyzer 8000, refrigeration for storing blood evidence, computers for running background checks and other conveniences normally only found at a police station. Grimstad said officers won’t jail the offenders on site, but will only temporarily hold them until they can be picked up by a sober friend or transported to a jail if needed. The patrol chief said he hopes to have the vehicle busy almost every weekend during the summer once he gets officers trained to use it. “We still have that chosen few that get out there and drink and drive, and they could kill you or me, or anyone,” he said.