HELENA (AP) — Lawmakers hoping to change Montana's drinking and driving culture agreed Friday to send a series of tougher proposed laws to the full Legislature.
Montana has long ranked among the worst states in drunken driving statistics. Lawmakers and policy leaders are increasingly deciding the time has come to crack down.
Proposals approved Friday by the Law and Justice Interim Committee include efforts to reduce the number of minors who drink, stiffen some penalties for drunken driving and to make it easier for authorities prosecuting the crimes.
Supporters said the proposals will help. And they expect many more ideas to come before the Legislature, including one from the attorney general to closely monitor repeat offenders.
"It does a lot," said Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor. "As always you are trying to make a bad situation better, it will never be perfect."
One proposal creates stiffer penalties for "aggravated" drunken driving, such as having a blood alcohol content of .20 percent, far above the legal limit of .08 percent. Another gets rid of the law that does not allow courts to consider DUIs older than five years to be considered when seeking tougher punishment.
About a dozen separate proposed bills would also take away the driver's license of minors ticketed for possessing alcohol, and provide more alcohol treatment.
Also included are plans to let police get a warrant 24 hours a day to get a blood test from those refusing a breath test. Currently drivers can refuse the test, and although they lose their driver's license they deny key evidence.
A plan to mandate training for servers follows the high-profile death last year of a highway patrolman that has served as a catalyst for much of the focus on tougher DUI laws.
The driver who killed Montana Highway Patrol trooper Michael Haynes was served 13 drinks over 3 1/2 hours. The judge in that case sent a message by throwing out a plea deal against the bartender in favor of mandatory jail time.
Lawmakers hope better training will teach bartenders the dangers of serving way too much and prevent similar situations.
"I think it's an important step forward in prevention," said Mothers Against Drunk Drivers' Rebecca Sturdevant. "This is really important."
Others believe connecting minor-in-possession penalties to driver's licenses will help reduce underage DUIs by preventing the drinking in the first place. Some high school students have been advocating the change.
"The young people's position is to be tough," said Rep. Ken Peterson, R-Billings. "Word spreads among the young people really well. If they know that, maybe they won't drink. I think that message we send is real important."