HELENA, Mont. — A state lawmaker’s speech railing against proposed tightening of drunken driving laws — a speech mocked mercilessly by political opponents — is no laughing matter to activists who say it perpetuates Montana’s dangerous boozy culture.
Bar owner Alan Hale said in a speech on the House floor this week that DUI laws are harmful to small businesses, implying that people need to drive home after drinking.
Tough DUI laws “are destroying a way of life that has been in Montana for years and years,’’ said the Republican from Basin, where a few hundred people live near the mountains of the Continental Divide.
Hale’s speech was perhaps most surprising for its honesty. Until recently, Montana had one of the most permissive drunken driving cultures in the country. Montanans could legally sip a beer while driving, and repeat DUI offenders tallied sixth and seventh offenses with little punishment.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving said statements like Hale’s take the state back to those more dangerous times.
“His comments are completely out of synch with public safety and reality,’’ said MADD activist Becky Sturdevant, who has worked for years to tighten state laws and is now on the cusp of one of her biggest legislative victories.
Few politicians, even in Montana, dare to stand up these days against DUI reform. But Hale’s comments perhaps reflected what others are privately thinking in a state that struggled mightily to outlaw drinking behind the wheel — a practice that was legal outside city limits until 2005 as long as the driver was not legally intoxicated.
Hale took the business angle.
“These DUI laws are not doing our small businesses in our state any good at all. They are destroying them,’’ Hale said, talking about the long drives in rural areas to get to pubs. “They are the center of the communities. I’ll guarantee you there’s only two ways to get there: either you hitchhike or you drive, and I promise you that they are not going to hitchhike.’’
He refused to comment on the issue yesterday.