Drinking Habits Die Hard in Cowboy Country

— For some people in Montana, time and distance are measured by how many beers it takes to drive from one place to the other. A drive from Billings to Bozeman would be a "six-pack drive"; a drive across the the nation's third-largest state would take a whole case of beer.

When newspaper reporter Eve Byron leaves for home in rural Montana, she thinks nothing of drinking a beer while she's driving. And why not? In Montana, it's perfectly legal.

"I'm 43 years old and I've been drinking beer for 20 years now and having a beer on the way home is not going to make me a hazard on the road," she said as she sipped a cold one.

"It's just as dangerous to have people talking on a cell phone, or two screaming kids in the back," she added. "I don't get drunk and drive."

Montana is not alone. It's legal to drink while driving in Mississippi and Wyoming, too. But there are restrictions. Many of Montana's cities have passed local ordinances against the practice, and you must not be intoxicated while driving through big sky country.

In Montana, the legal blood-alcohol limit is .08.

"I think if you've got about 100 miles to go between towns," said a local judge, "you've got to drink something, as long as you're not being imprudent."

MADD Lobbying for Bill to Ban Beer

Not everyone in this wide-open state agrees. Mothers Against Drunk Driving helped draw up a bill outlawing drinking while driving that was recently introduced in the Montana Legislature.

Bill Muhs, who heads the Bozeman chapter of the group, lobbied hard for its passage. His 20-year-old daughter was killed by a drunken driver.

"If we're really concerned about drunk driving, we need to really separate drinking from driving — it's just that simple," he said.

Still, Muhs realizes it takes time to change age-old customs in Montana. "Change is a little slow up here, people are a little more reticent to change their lifestyle here," he said.

In fact, the bill never made it out of committee. It was blocked by a powerful state representative who argued that Montana simply needed to enforce the laws on the books, not make new ones.

"We just don't need the government making laws that don't do anything," said Rep. Jim Shockley, a Republican from the town of Victor. "Those laws just turn honest people into criminals."

Montana's Legislature meets once every two years, so no change will occur until the next session convenes in 2005, if then. Gov. Judy Martz insists she will push through the legislation if she's re-elected.

"I am very disappointed we didn't get it this session but we will get it the next session," she said.

Passing an open-container law has become somewhat of a personal crusade for Martz. In 2001, a popular state legislator was killed in a drunken-driving accident. The driver, one of Martz's aides, pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in the case.

Still, old drinking habits die hard in cowboy country. When asked what she would do if the state outlawed drinking while driving, Eve Byron paused, took a sip of beer, and as she sped toward home, said simply, "Well, I guess I'll become an outlaw."