ON THE map of the United States kept by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Montana is a red state, not for its conservative political leaning but as one of the 50 states that ranks highest in alcohol-related traffic deaths.
Montana, in fact, led the nation in this dubious distinction in 2003, the most recent year for available statistics, with 1.18 alcohol-related fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled.
So it is at least noteworthy that Montana has finally joined most of the rest of the United States in adopting an open container law that outlaws drinking while driving, effective Oct. 1. Sort of.
The penalty for violation of the new statute is only a $100 fine, and a citation won t show up on a motorist s driving record.
The anemic penalty was the price, we re told, of getting any law at all enacted in the Treasure State. With Montana in the fold, only Mississippi now lacks a statewide open-container statute, although many localities have such laws.
By way of explanation, Jim Burfeind, a University of Montana sociologist, says that, hey, there are a lot of long, dusty, and apparently thirst-producing trails in a place like Montana, which is as large as New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio combined but has only 927,000 residents about as many people as live in Toledo and Columbus.
We think we re a very different place than other places and that we don t have to run by the rules that other people have to in more congested areas, Mr. Burfeind told the Associated Press.
But that s faulty logic. If the highways really were so deserted that motorists didn t have to worry about encountering drunken drivers, Montana wouldn t have the nation s highest alcohol-fatality rate.
In contrast to Montana s 1.18 rate, Ohio ranks ninth with 0.43 fatalities per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. Michigan ranks 14th at 0.48.
Statistics may be dry, but it s pretty obvious that Montanans like to wet their whistles while they zip on down the highway. And too often this long-held tradition gets them into deadly trouble.
Perhaps the new law will engender some sober reflection among the Big Sky folks about the dangers of knocking back a cold one (or two, or three) while at the wheel.
In the meantime, if you re ever driving in Montana, keep your eyes peeled for those rugged individualists who like to cool the brew by holding the can out the window of the pickup truck. And, by golly, give em a wide berth out on the interstate.
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