HELENA, Mont. —Montana has long had a reputation as a place where you could crack open a beer while driving down the interstate just about as fast as you liked.
Until 2005, when the state came under heavy duress from the federal government, it was legal to drink and drive in many places. And a few years before that there wasn't even a speed limit on major highways and in rural areas.
But spurred by the high-profile death of a highway patrolman at the hands of an intoxicated driver, Montana's drinking-and-driving culture is retreating. Judges are rejecting lenient plea deals, and law enforcement leaders are exploring different ways of keeping track of repeat offenders.
Even the Legislature, which just a few years ago struggled mightily to ban open containers of booze in cars, is beginning to promise tough new laws. This comes after years of virtually ignoring the state's ranking at or near the top of per capita drunken driving deaths.
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Montana has long been tolerant of drivers who drink.
Some small town bars still offer cocktails in a to-go cup. Repeat DUI offenders are shuttled in and out of the system before they have a chance to sober up.
Montana has many isolated roads and almost no public transportation. A saloon-era attitude toward drinking, coupled with Montana's libertarian streak that eschews tough law enforcement or even letting local police set up roadside "safety checks," combine for a deadly scenario, experts say.
"There is significant anti-government sentiment which spills over into impaired driving enforcement," said Mothers Against Drunk Drivers' Rebecca Sturdevant. "Rather than praising public safety officers for keeping our highways safe, I have heard legislators berate them for bothering drivers."
But almost no one doubts the state is coming to grips with its drinking and driving issues.