Why the West has resisted drunken-driving crackdown

Longer drives and culture of self-reliance spur high rate ofalcohol-related crashes, but states are getting tougher.

With names like Big Sky Country, the Cowboy State, and Land of Enchantment, the states of the West are testaments to America's pioneering spirit.

Out here, peaks soar higher, rivers run swifter, and plains spread as far as the eye can see. But the West's wide open spaces - and the rugged ethic of self-reliance that they inspire - have mixed with fatal consequences on the region's highways. Last year, Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and Nevada were among the five worst states for the number of people killed in alcohol-related car crashes, according to a recent study.

While alcohol-related traffic deaths have declined to record lows nationally, the problem stubbornly persists in the West. Sparsely populated states with long, rural roads tend to encourage faster drivers, and attempts at cracking down on drunken driving have clashed with a century-old cowboy culture that often tilts toward a hard-drinking lifestyle.

These states have proposed solutions ranging from lowering the legal blood-alcohol level to banning open containers in cars. Yet the pioneer trademarks that define the West, say experts, have helped shape a culture where individual freedoms are fiercely defended, making the problem harder to rein in.

"If it was really controlled by state policy, we could have turned it off 15 years ago, and we should have," says James Davis, director of the University of New Mexico Division of Government Research in Albuquerque, where the study was conducted. But he adds, "It's like trying to budge a supertanker with a tugboat."

Last year, for instance, Wyoming had the worst record when it comes to fatalities.

Statistics compiled by Mr. Davis's office show that for every 100,000 people in Wyoming, 14.14 died in crashes involving alcohol in 1998. Compare that to a national average of 5.9. The second worst was Mississippi, followed by Montana and New Mexico. (The drivers in Davis's study were not necessarily over the legal limit, but had some alcohol in their bloodstream.)

Wyoming drive-throughs

In Wyoming, it is legal to literally drink and drive as long as your blood-alcohol level remains below the legal limit of 0.10. Liquor can also be bought at drive-through windows.

But New Mexico's fourth-worst ranking last year was actually the state's best since figures were kept in 1982. (For most of the past 16 years, New Mexico was ranked the worst in the country.)

New Mexico's traffic deaths linked to alcohol have fallen steadily since it stopped the sale of liquor from drive-up windows, and activists credit the ban for reducing alcohol-related highway deaths by 22 percent during the past year.

The state also lowered the blood-alcohol level for drunken driving from 0.10 to 0.08 last year, and some $36 million has been funneled into education programs.

Debating solutions

While New Mexico shows improvement and Montana has tightened laws, debates over remedies continue, especially in Wyoming, where lawmakers are divided over whether to lower blood-alcohol levels for driving drunk.

But observers caution that nettlesome issues persist. Sporadic public transportation will keep Westerners in their cars, and such states have heavy, pass-through traffic from tourists and others driving cross-country. Yet despite these factors, critics say the cowboy culture presents one of the strongest barriers.

"This is a good 'ole boy state," says Toni Reichenbach, state director of victim services for Wyoming Mothers Against Drunk Drivers. "You measure the distance from one town to another by the number of six packs it takes you to drink."

Ms. Reichenbach wants to pass open-container laws for cars, close Wyoming's drive-up liquor windows, and lower the legal limit to 0.08. But the obstacles she faces is a window into the Western mindset. There is a sentiment that people - and states - have a right to do what they want with their cars.

One Wyoming program already in effect is REDDI (Report Every Drunken Driver Immediately). Begun in 1982, REDDI provides people with an 800 number to the highway patrol to report possible lawbreakers. Wyoming Department of Transportation spokesman Bruce Burrows said last year marked more than 10,000 arrests as a result of REDDI.

"We see that as a success that has made a dent in the problem," he said. "Perhaps our numbers would be even higher without it."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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