(Helena, Montana--Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio) Montana lawmakers are considering a bill aimed at closing a loophole a state law involving traffic accidents where the alleged perpetrator flees the scene.
Senate Bill 68 would clarify that a driver has a duty to remain at the scene of an accident involving death, personal injury, or damage to a vehicle.
The law is currently a Catch-22, says Montana Department of Justice prosecutor Ole Olson.
He told the Senate Judiciary Committee a driver is required to stop only if he knows he’s injured or killed a pedestrian, for example. But the driver won’t know that, says Olson, unless he has stopped.
“And what happens is someone who doesn’t want to talk to the police, doesn’t want to be involved because they’ve been drinking has every incentive to close their eyes and continue down the road,” Olson says.
The re-authorization bill expired in 2009. Since that time Congress has passed a number of continuing resolutions to keep funds flowing to states.
Still, there’s uncertainty. A year ago, some state transportation officials were concerned Congress wasn’t going to pass a continuing resolution. Some told members of Congress--and highway contractor--that they would suspend work.
Per mile and per capita, Montana leads the nation in fatalities where alcohol is a contributing factor," says Kevin O'Brien, spokesman for the Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock.
O'Brien says that the number of convictions for felony DUI's in Montana rose 39% from 2009 to 2010. A person will receive the felony DUI designation for any 4th or subsequent DUI conviction. He notes there's been a moderate decrease in the number of first time convictions but the number of repeat offenders keeps going up.
As of today, lawmakers have introduced or requested over 30 bills (or bill drafts) to deal with impaired drivers. This includes making it a crime to refuse a breathalyzer test when stopped on suspicion of driving under the influence (DUI). State Attorney General Steve Bullock has said some 3,000 suspected drunk drivers refused the breath test last year, and he supports efforts to strengthen DUI laws.
According to an op-ed in the Billings Gazette, "DUI refusal is the bane of prosecutors. A refusal case is one of the most difficult types of criminal cases to try because the key piece of evidence — the suspects' blood alcohol level — is missing...According to Bullock, more people have refused the breath test than have been convicted of first-offense DUI this year."
It is not unusual for the courts to deal with offenders who have multiple DUI convictions on their records. For example, a man with nine DUI convictions was sentenced last August to 13 months with the Montana Department of Corrections. The judge said he would have meted out a longer sentence if one was allowed under Montana law.
The Montana Legislature convened Monday and is scheduled to adjourn at the end of April.
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(Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) - Wyoming is spending $9.7 million dollars to create a series of wildlife underpasses and overpasses to help pronghorn antelope cross the road.
Antelope that migrate through the Gros Ventre Mountains to and from Grand Teton National Park in western Wyoming face several highway crossings. This wildlife crossing project has been dubbed "Path of the Pronghorn."
Wyoming Department of Transportation Engineer John Eddins of Rock Springs says the main reason for the new wildlife crossings is for safety. He says on average 100 big game animals are hit on the roadway each year. Eddins says there is cost for these collisions.
"Take the $10,000 damage per property damage crash," he says "And the value of a deer around $3,000 based on our Wyoming Game and Fish restitution value, multiply that by 100 carcases and 20 or 30 property damage crashes and run that out over 20 years and that’s a significant amount of money."
(Billings, MT – Jackie Yamanaka, YPR) – The provider of public health services for Montana’s largest community is moving most of its services to one campus. A lack of reliable transportation has hindered access to some programs spread across Billings.
Riverstone Health oversees the community health center that provides primary care to the uninsured or underserved in Billings. Many clients are low-income. The organization, formerly known as the Yellowstone City-County Health Department, is currently undergoing an expansion and renovation of its campus.
John Felton, Riverstone’s vice president of operations says the maternal health program -- Women, Infants, and Children -- will be moved to the community health center as part of renovation. “For one of us to get in the car and go a couple of miles is not a big deal if we have reliable transportation,” he says.
But for many of the center’s patients who would benefit from WIC, it is a burden to go to another location for services, he says, especially because it’s not along a bus route.
“When this project is complete, rather than getting in a car or finding a ride people will literally walk upstairs and they’ll be at the WIC program,” Felton says. He notes that Riverstone Health is located on Billings’ Southside in part because the U.S. Census has identified this area as lower-income.
“And one of the hallmarks of being low income,” he says, “is not having access to reliable transportation. So we’re on a bus line here and many of our patients walk.”
(Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio) As the then-Republican Mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, John Robert Smith watched as the city’s $1 million expenditure for the multi-modal Union Station blossomed into a $135 million public-private investment in the historic downtown.
Smith says the area was once a run down inner-city neighborhood. Then, Union Station became a one-stop location for Amtrak, city bus service, shuttles to the airport and a nearby Navy base. After that, restaurants and boutiques opened nearby, and the area became walkable.
“There’s a conference center there now. There’s a restored performing arts center there. There are condominiums, market rate apartments, very affordable apartments, and opportunities there in the downtown that didn’t exist 14 years ago when we opened this station.”
He says Meridian was already the retail, medical, employment, cultural, and educational center for an 11-county region. But the new transit center, he says, was what spurred new growth. Union station, he says, “became the most heavily used public space in Meridian, MS. Over 350,000 passengers a year use that station. Keep in mind you’re talking about a city of 40,000 people.”
More important, he says, it gave young people a reason to come home to rural Meridian when they graduated from college.
(Billings, MT -- April 15 | Jackie Yamanaka, Yellowstone Public Radio) A group of Billings citizens met this week to discuss how to make Montana’s largest community healthier through the design of its streets. There’s a national movement taking place to make sure streets can accommodate motorized vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities. Advocates say it can lead to a safer, healthier, and more livable communities.