DUI Task Force hopes to curb highway fatalities

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Driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol has severe and sometimes, fatal consequences. There were 187 fatalities on Montana roads in 2016, with 94 of those accidents relating to impaired driving, according to a Montana Department of Transportation report. In Mineral County, 61 people have been either killed or seriously injured due to impaired driving between 2006 and 2015. Some reports even say that Montana’s I-90 is one of the most dangerous roads in the nation in terms of drunk driving fatalities.

In 1987, Montana created DUI Task Forces to help combat this issue. In Mineral County, the DUI Task Force hasn’t been very active over the past few years. However, former county sheriff, Ernie Ornelas and current sheriff, Tom Bauer want to change that. On Dec. 30, they submitted a plan for the Mineral County’s DUI Task Force which was approved by county commissioners.

The mission of the task force is to reduce the number of alcohol and drug related motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and deaths in Mineral County, through efforts of community involvement, promotion of healthier choices, legislative advocacy, and public education regarding alcohol and drug consequences according to the report.

The first Task Force meeting will be held on Jan. 19, 2017 at 4 p.m. in the Mineral County Commissioner’s Meeting Room. Ornelas and Bauer are hoping to include administrators and students from area schools, hospital and department of health and human services staff, as well as local business owners who are involved with the sale of alcohol.

Ornelas said no plan had been submitted last year and so this one would encompass an 18-month period from Jan. 1, 2017 through June 30, 2018. The $9,000 budget for this time period will include scholarships, Red Ribbon Week activities, youth prevention and education and an educational speaker for the schools. As well as additional law enforcement activities and compliance checks with local distributors.

Driver license reinstatement fees are the life-blood of Montana’s county-level DUI Task Forces. Drivers who lose his or her license can choose to request a reinstatement of driving privileges, which may include a $100 or $200 fine, of which half is returned to the county DUI Task Force. Currently, the Mineral County Task Force has a projected fund of over $31,000, with nearly all of it rolled over from previous years.

Ornelas said there were 39 DUI arrests in the county in 2014 and 2015, where 66 percent of car accidents were the result of impaired drivers. In addition to DUI offenses, minors and underage in possession of alcohol, or MIPs and UAPs, continue to be a problem. In a recent youth survey conducted in Mineral County, there has been an increase in the number of kids using alcohol. In middle school, 7.6 percent report drinking five or more drinks in a row within the last 30 days of the survey. With 20 percent of high school students reported drinking.

According to a 2009 study by the Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation, “young people who begin drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence are two and a half times more likely to become abusers of alcohol than those who begin drinking at age 21.”

Strategies the Task Force would like to implement include supporting DUI, impaired driving and primary seat belt laws. Also, provide overtime funds for enhanced DUI patrols on weekends, holidays, and special events. These overtime contracts would be awarded to the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office. They would also like to provide an honorarium to the Mineral County Reserve Deputy Unit for their volunteer assistance with the kegger and bar patrols.

Additionally, the task force may provide funds to the sheriff’s office to purchase equipment, supplies and training needed for enforcing DUI laws and processing arrests. As well as provide support for compliance checks, to make sure bars and other establishments do not sell alcohol to minors.

Another item included in the plan is to support a sobriety program. This program would be designed to keep second and subsequent DUI offenders sober while they are awaiting trial. Participants would need to provide breath testing twice-a-day or subscribe to SCRAM units. As well as a possible Safe Ride Program, which would be made available to impaired tavern patrons.

Public education especially aimed at students, was also proposed. This would include bringing educators into the schools for classes, and have information available at community events. Along with projects like billboard and other signage, and county contests.

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