Before 2005, it was legal to have an open container and drive down a highway in Montana.
Twelve years later, many Montanans don’t recognize how dangerous it is to get behind the wheel after drinking.
The History of Drinking and Driving in Montana
“It’s something that’s been woven into our DNA almost as Montanans,” said Montana Attorney General Tim Fox.
Driving after drinking is an issue Montana has faced for decades, and Fox believes that’s partially because “people having grown up with it. People having parents and grandparents that may have done it.”
It wasn’t until 2005 when then Governor Brian Schweitzer signed a bill, making driving with an open container illegal.
While this law attempted to start a cultural shift, some people still don’t recognize the dangers.
“Unfortunately, I think many people either don’t see anything wrong with drinking and driving, or they have just become so used to it,” said a disappointed Fox.
The Montana Highway Patrol said not allowing "road beers" did not stop the problem.
“We’re not talking about prohibition or elimination alcohol; we’re talking about the responsible use of that, particularly in the driving arena,” said Montana Highway Patrol Colonel Tom Butler.
“But that’s a cultural shift in Montana because, you know, this is a hardworking, hard drinking state and that has sort of defined us through the years,” he said.
Montana has consistently been at the top of lists using data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration when it comes to per capita driving under the influence citations and fatalities as a result of DUIs.
A statistic Fox said is “very disturbing, but it’s more disturbing in terms of lives lost.”
As of Feb. 14, 2017, ten people have died on Montana’s roads and five have been a result of impaired driving.
The Montana Department of Transportation data from 2015 showed 118 fatal crashes in the state involved an impaired driver, a disheartening fact that Fox said is "entirely preventable.”
Despite losing hundreds of lives on Montana’s roads, the drinking and driving laws have evolved over the years.
In 2015, the legislature added a $300 fee for anyone who refuses a breathalyzer test in the field during a sobriety test, forcing a blood test.
Lawmakers also doubled the look back period, or the time that can pass between one DUI and subsequent offenses, from five to ten years.
Plus, the fees for DUI convictions were also increased. $600 for the first offense, $1,200 for the second and $2,500 for the third DUI.
If there was someone 16 years old or younger in the car at the time of the incident, those fine double.
“Those fees hadn’t been raised for probably 30 years or more,” said Fox.
The consequences for drunk drivers can vary depending on various factors, but there is a progression that takes place.
From Libby to Broadus and everywhere in between, MHP said officers have to figure out where each community stands on the issue of drinking.
“It’s a challenge to not only understand that, but to make incremental steps to changing that culture because every community looks at it differently,” Butler said.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control showed an average drunk driver has driven drunk over 80 times before their first arrest.
In Montana, the fourth DUI conviction is a felony, meaning for every person who gets a felony, on average, they drove drunk at least 320 times.
“That’s pretty alarming,” said Fox.
With facts like that hanging over Montanans, it is evident something needs to change to spark a cultural overhaul.
“We need to educate young people. I think personally, that starts at home,” said Fox.
The family dynamic of anyone can play a big role in habits later in life, but drinking and driving knows no demographic bounds.
“It can be young people whose families maybe don’t have a lot or maybe they have a broken family, but it can also be highly successful families who really don’t show any kind of problems,” Fox said.
Fox believes parents can play a large role in their kids’ view of drinking.
“Many of us lock up our prescription drugs, but we don’t lock up our liquor cabinets,” he said.
Results from the 2015 Office of Public Instruction’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that kids are drinking at a very young age.
For now, Montanans continue to get behind the wheel after drinking.
“They don’t fully understand the consequences and ultimately the tragedies that can occur,” Fox said with concern.
A lesson a Billings man learned the hard way.
A Drunk Driver’s Horrific Story
Justin Kiger grew up in a non-alcoholic home in Billings and started drinking at 13 years old.
“I progressed into a daily drinker when I was about 18 years old,” Kiger said.
His criminal behavior started with "stealing money from my parents to support my alcohol habit.”
Kiger got his first DUI conviction at the age of 22 and was ordered to take the ACT classes and pay a slew of fines, but nothing stopped him from drinking.
“I was put on a conditional release and ordered not to drink, but I continued to drink,” he said.
He continued to drink and drive until 2011.
“I chose to drive drunk after a night drinking at the bar. I drove recklessly over 80 miles per hour through city streets in Billings, lost control of the vehicle and slammed into a building and Jack was ejected and killed.”
Kiger killed his best friend, Jack, and remembers everything about that night.
“I remember Jack lying on the side of the road, covered in blood,” Kiger said.
“I had numerous opportunities to save Jack’s life that night,” said Kiger.
Kiger fled the scene of the crash after watching his best friend get ejected.
“I was completely entrenched in my denial and wanted to do everything I possibly could to not get in trouble,” Kiger said sorrowfully.
He was convicted of negligent vehicular homicide and sentenced to prison.
Then, on May 3, 2016, Kiger made another life changing decision.
He decided to apply to the WATCh Program and turn his life path around.
The WATCh West Program is a six-month-long, intense inpatient program offered only for men with felony DUI convictions at the State Hospital in Warm Springs through the Department of Corrections.
Women are a part of the WATCh East Program in Glendive.
“We’ve designed the program so there’s a lot of interaction and there’s a lot of education components to it,” said WATCh Clinical Supervisor Michael Boston.
Administrator of the program Alex Vukovich said once participants are sentenced to the Department of Correction, "they then have a right to apply to come, you can’t be sentenced here.”
Once admitted, the cognitive behavioral therapy begins.
“So we look at something that’s maybe a lenient belief amongst the population, and move towards a specific personal behavior with a client,” Boston said.
“We want to change the thinking process,” he said.
But Kiger was not interested in what the program had to offer in the beginning.
“I came into this program thinking I could do it my way and take the easy way out of prison.”
Boston believes the program is an alternative to prison for felons and helps them turn their life around.
“It gives them the chance for rehabilitation. They have a lot of things they have to face now, once they get that felony,” said Boston.
The program is very intense with a strong sense of community and very visible signs of recovery around every corner.
With motivational posters lining the walls and the mentality that everyone has a right to be sober.
The program teaches real life skills that prepare participants for a new life outside the barred windows and cement walls.
“It’s better to get them reintegrated back into the community through this process than to be sitting in prison," said Boston.
Facing the big picture is an integral part of the therapy at the WATCh Program.
Assistant Clinical Supervisor Donna Benson said the participants are forced to take a step back and reevaluate what they have done.
“We help them look at the ripple effect and the victims they create through their drinking,” Benson said.
That idea of looking at the victims was a harsh reality for Kiger, who up until his time in the program, “didn’t honor Jack whatsoever and continued the same criminal behavior, doing whatever satisfied [him] at the time.”
“Jack had three children and they’re without their father right now because of me,” Kiger said.
The program is comprised of three phases, allowing each person to move between them at their own pace.
The first phase is challenge to change.
“We educate about the disease, we educate about criminality,” Benson said.
She said they firmly believe addiction is a disease, and when they first begin the program, the participants "haven’t taken any accountability for the victims they’ve created.”
Phase two is commitment to change.
The men must take a deep look at their criminality and process their actions.
“These guys come to realize that they’re not an alcoholic or an addict because of anything that happened,” Benson said.
The final phase is ownership of change.
This last phase is all about taking ownership of their past and begin taking everything they have learned in the program to become role models for others.
Benson said in the final phase, "We teach these guys, sobriety is their number one priority.”
Kiger said learning how to be a role model has inspired him to help others.
“I want to do my part in helping prevent the next person from going down the same path I did,” he said.
The three phases must be mastered to complete treatment, and since the inception of the program in 2002 by the state legislature, there have been 3,100 graduates.
Once the men graduate from the program, they are put on parole and probation.
The WATCh Program has never seen compliance rates dip below 70 percent for its’ graduates.
Administrator Vukovich attributed the success rate to the work that is done inside the walls with a staff of just 70.
“It’s very intense. We don’t fool around. We know everything they’ve tried in their past hasn’t worked,” he said.
Changing the Drinking Culture
The habit of drinking and driving in Montana seems to be ingrained in many people’s minds.
“It’s enculturated. You have lots of small towns where that drinking culture maintains,” Boston explained.
Even with attention on the impacts drinking and driving can have on a family or a town and "despite having one DUI, two DUIS, three DUIS, people continue to drink and drive,” said Benson with extreme frustration.
“I’m the reality of what will happen if people continue to drive [drunk],” Kiger said.
As Boston explained, no one thinks their drinking and driving habits are a problem.
“I think it’s about their own personal belief that their drinking and driving is different than everybody else’s.”
This was exactly how Kiger thought of his habits.
“I was the guy who sat and said, ‘It’ll never happen to me. There’s no way; I’ve driven drunk numerous times, numerous times and never been in trouble.’"
But we already know that the average drunk driver drives around 80 times drunk before getting caught.
“It only takes one time,” Kiger said.
“For me, it took the death of my friend and realizing everything I took from him for me to even wake up," he said.
While the solution to this deep rooted issue may not be simple, Boston said there is one simple question.
“You need to ask yourself the question, ‘Do I drink and drive?’”
If the answer is yes, “It’s not an if, it’s when you will kill somebody or yourself,” Kiger said.
Another program offered to those convicted of DUIs is the 24/7 Sobriety Program.
This began as a pilot program in Lewis and Clark County in March of 2010 and was adopted statewide in 2011 when Governor Brian Schweitzer signed House Bill 106.
Montana Highway Patrol has a coordinator who travels from corner to corner of the state, helping implement the program.
“I visit with judges and county attorneys and sheriff’s offices.
I’m there to help their program be successful, so whatever they need, whether it’s training, if they need equipment, that’s what I do,” said Program Coordinator Sergeant Lacie Wickum.
The 24/7 was modeled after South Dakota’s program.
Butler said the data from their program “got us excited from the studies out of South Dakota."
Butler said it "showed a positive effect on recidivism and when you look at the historical issues with ignition interlock or other types electronic monitoring, while they may work well when they are on the car, there’s no documented study, that I’m aware, anywhere, that shows a positive impact on recidivism.”
Anyone accused of their second or subsequent drunk driving offense can be ordered by a judge to partake in the program.
Twice daily testing is done at specific sites in communities and costs the offender $2 per test, with one dollar staying in house to support the program and the other going to Intoxatrack, the system used to manage all the data.
Currently, 53 counties are running the program in some way, either with the twice daily breathalyzer tests and SCRAM ankle monitoring, or just SCRAM.
Since the program’s inception, more than 600,000 tests have been administered, with a success rate of 99.7 percent.
Those who "blow hot," or blow anything that is above the blood alcohol limit of legal limit of .00 percent when they come in to test, do face sanctions.
“It’s not for long term, it’s a swift sanction,” Wickum said.
“They immediately go to jail, so they might come in and have to sit for 12 hours, if they happen to violate again they might come in and have to sit for 24 hours.”
Wickum noted that there could be more people who would blow hot but instead decide to not show up for testing at all.
“Participants who don’t show up are violating the program,” Wickum said.
“People who are at home drinking, they decide, ‘I’m not going to go in and blow because I know I’m going to blow hot and then I’m going to jail,’” he said.
Each time someone violates the program the punishment could increase, but each county is different.
While the 24/7 Program may be relatively new to Montana, Butler is confident there will be progress made.
“I think in the long run, data is on our side, success stories are on our side,” Butler said.
Drinking and driving is not a new issue to any state across the country, but as people continuously decide to get behind the wheel after drinking, Butler said the criminal justice system needs to have an open mind about the way alcohol related offenses are dealt with.
The 24/7 Sobriety Program is one way to start the evolution.
“It’s a completely different idea of dealing with the offender than we have done in Montana before. In my mind, that’s a cultural shift," said Butler.