The mother-daughter team of Carli Dewbre and Beth McBride spend their weekends prowling the streets of Flathead Valley long before the sun comes up.
Last weekend was no different. Shortly before 6 a.m. on Feb. 4 snow fell on Whitefish’s quieted streets, which the day before were home to the revelry, excitement and chaos of Winter Carnival. The bars and restaurants lining Central Avenue, which served last call just hours prior, sat silent.
Though the formerly packed streets were largely empty, a few cars remained. That is why Dewbre and McBride were there, working as the Montana Bar Fairies, a local grassroots organization raising awareness about drunk driving in the Flathead Valley and incentivizing drivers to find a safe ride home — one $5 coffee card at a time.
“It’s a way to honor the memories of the people we have lost, but ultimately our goal is to reduce fatalities due to drunk drivers in our area, and hopefully, eventually, in the state of Montana,” Dewbre said.
In March 2023, Bobby Dewbre, Carli Dewbre’s brother and the son of Beth McBride, was celebrating his 21st birthday at the Blue Moon near the intersection of U.S. 2 and Montana 40. While crossing the street to get to his sober ride home, Bobby was struck and killed by a drunk driver.
The motorist, John Lee Wilson, was convicted in Flathead County Justice Court on counts of operating a vehicle without liability insurance in effect, careless driving involving death or serious bodily injury and aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs last year. He was sentenced to 18 months in the county jail in November.
The state of Montana is above the national average for alcohol impaired driving deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Around 66% of all fatalities on the road in Montana were the result of impaired driving in 2020, marking one of the highest drunk driving fatality rates in the nation.
Montana also boasts some of the most relaxed drunk driving laws in the country. In a way, Carli Dewbre and McBride said, the Montana Bar Fairies exists to reward positive choices while also encouraging and educating the community about the harms of drunk driving.
“The current consequences [for drunk driving] are not a deterrent for people,” McBride said.
The Montana Bar Fairies launched on New Year’s Day. Dreamt up by Carli Dewbre, the organization places $5 coffee cards on cars left overnight at popular bars across the valley. Each card includes a picture of a drunk driving victim, including Bobby Dewbre, a note and a $5 coffee card to various locations across the area.
“I thought of the idea when I was in peak grief,” Dewbre said. “I was driving past the Scoreboard early in the morning and saw cars that were left behind. I wished there was some way I could thank them for not driving home.”
Beth McBride, with the Montana Bar Fairies, places a coffee card, thanking people for not drinking and driving, onto a car in Whitefish that was possibly left overnight. McBride’s son, Bobby Dewbre, was struck and killed by a drunk driver last year. (Kate Heston/Daily Inter Lake)
There are currently two victims on the cards, but McBride and Dewbre encourage anyone who wants to get involved to reach out. Alongside Bobby, the other coffee card showcases a photo of Brooke Hanson, a 15-year-old Columbia Falls resident who was struck and killed by a drunk driver on her way to go fishing with friends in May 2021.
They can’t know for sure what cars were left behind because a drunk individual opted against getting behind the wheel. However, the cards do more than reward behavior — they help open up a conversation that, according to McBride and Dewbre, needs to be had.
Sheriff Brian Heino told the Inter Lake last summer that he has observed an increase in drunk driving arrests over his more than 20-year career. Flathead County has one of the highest DUI fatality rates in the state, according to statistics compiled by the Montana Department of Transportation.
From 2011 to 2020, the county saw the highest percentage of impaired drivers involved in crashes in the state. Around 12.5% of all crashes involve impaired drivers in Flathead County. Gallatin County boasts the second highest rate; 9.7% of all crashes there involved an impaired motorist.
For fatal and serious injury crashes, 9.2% involved drunk drivers in Flathead County, followed by 6.2% in Yellowstone County.
The Montana Bar Fairies, through social media and the group’s website, track various statistics in Flathead County to make them easily available for residents. As the organization grows, Dewbre said, they hope to morph into an educational and informational service as much as an outreach one.
“It’s also really, really important to us that this is not about judgment,” McBride said. “The point of this is to change the culture, it’s changing the conversation.”
Hopefully, McBride said, it incentivizes people to think twice before drunk driving in the future.
Between Jan. 29 and Feb. 4, there were 14 impaired driving arrests in Flathead County, the Montana Bar Fairies posted on their social media accounts. Three of those were aggravated, meaning that the drivers sported a blood alcohol content above 0.16. Five of the arrests were made on Feb. 4, a Sunday, alone.
There are 80 estimated trips taken by a drunk driver for every one DUI, Dennis Maughan, the Pacific Northwest regional executive director of Moms Against Drunk Driving, a national advocacy group, told the Inter Lake in July. Nationwide, there has been a double-digit increase in DUI arrests since 2019, he said.
For Dewbre and McBride, acknowledging and talking about those statistics is essential to mitigating the problem.
Losing someone you love at the hands of somebody else is another sort of grief, McBride said, and launching the Montana Bar Fairies was a way to turn that grief into action.
McBride anticipates working with local lawmakers during the 2025 legislative session to strengthen laws regarding impaired driving in the state in Bobby’s memory. This is only the beginning, both Dewbre and McBride said.
“This will make people think twice. This will help save lives,” McBride said.
To learn more or get involved, visit the Montana Bar Fairies at https://www.montanabarfairies.org/.
Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 758-4459.