Drinking and driving in Montana has begun to be something of a cliché. Locals tell out-of-state newspapers that we measure distances in beers. A Los Angeles Times story a few months ago included a quote from Bill Muhs of Bozeman: "Bozeman to Billings is a six-pack drive.... Crossing the state would be a whole case."
Even politicians take it for
granted. Brian Schweitzer, the leading candidate in the Democratic
gubernatorial primary, told a documentary film crew that he might
"suck down" a cold one while returning home from his hay fields.
His rationale? It's "the Montana way."
driving in Montana is legal, but a confession like Schweitzer's
carries political consequences. Montana Gov. Judy Martz, R, jumped
at the chance to criticize him. But don't think she's a
conventional governor. She's not, which may explain why she's
chosen not to run for a second term.
. Martz's most
notorious acts in office revolve around a 2001 drunk-driving
fatality near Helena involving her top aide, Shane Hedges. When
Hedges crashed his SUV, it killed his passenger, state House
Majority Leader Paul Sliter. The county attorney publicly
considered indicting Martz and another top Republican on charges of
obstruction of justice for destroying evidence and impeding the
investigation. Editorials in papers around the state echoed dismay
about the "appearance of impropriety" in the "cover-up" scandal.
Martz's approval ratings since then have hoveredin the mid-teens. A
frequently seen bumper sticker in the state says, "My governor is
dumber than your governor."
So it seemed when Gov. Martz,
speaking at the state Republican Convention, lambasted Democrat
Schweitzer on the matter of drinking: "The candidate on the other
side thinks (drinking and driving) is the Montana way.... Can you
imagine that mentality?"
Well, yes, I can. Almost all
rural states have a serious problem with drinking and driving,
though Montana (usually with Mississippi) sits at the bottom as one
of the worst. It seems counterintuitive, but rural America is
significantly more dangerous than urban and suburban areas. Highway
deaths are the leading contributor.
Why this is true ties
together with the easy logic of a highway accident report. Rural
citizens consume more alcohol, and they begin drinking earlier in
life, than urbanites. We drive farther, too. Last year, Montana's
per capita highway deaths were the second-highest in the nation.
Every Western state except Utah ranked above the national average.
But Montana had the dubious distinction of ranking first in
percentage of fatal crashes caused by drunk drivers, according to
data compiled by the National Highway Transportation Safety
Administration. It stands to reason that the teen years are when
most of us form our driving habits. That was the case with me. I'd
go so far as to say that a lot of small-town teenagers get an
alcohol primer in high school.
Our training ground was the
12 Mile Marker, along U.S. 87 north of Billings, just off a gravel
road and down a dirt track. In the late 1980s, when I went to high
school in Billings, word of keg parties passed through the halls
with a startling lack of discretion. That evening, columns of cars
and pickups streamed out of town. Someone would have grabbed a few
crates from behind a grocery store for a fire. Soon, a circle would
form around the blaze. A few hours later, a handful of law officers
would break up the party, and everyone would pile into cars for the
I loved the 12 Mile Marker. I remember coming
over the lip of a hill in the blackness of a cold evening and
seeing the circle of parked cars surrounding the silhouette of the
crowd gathered in the blazing light of the fire. I loved the
almost-spicy taste of the carbonation in those icy plastic cups of
beer. If the evening went according to plan, I'd be stumbling drunk
by the time a police spotlight flashed across the crowd.
By my senior year in high school I had lost a half-dozen
acquaintances to wrecks. One night on the way back to town I saw
the taillights of the car ahead of me suddenly veer from the
pavement and roll. No one died, that time.
Once I drove to
the 12 Mile Marker on a spring afternoon. It was odd to see the
place in daylight. On the return trip to Billings I passed several
crosses along the road marking recent fatalities.
15 years later, it seems that about once a year I lose someone I
know to the state's highways. Drinking while driving increases
those odds. Yet I can recall the appeal, especially when certain
songs play on the radio, of drinking, and knowing the night will
end with me climbing, with a heavy buzz, behind the wheel.