Drunk driving a stubborn problem in Rhode Island

Staff Writer
Thursday, April 28, 2011

Since February 2010, two high-profile campus accidents involving drunk driving have raised awareness of the issue at Brown. A hit-and-run two weeks ago that injured two students came just over a year after the Feb. 12, 2010 death of Avi Schaefer ’13 after being struck by a car on Thayer St. Though drunk driving incidents in Providence and Rhode Island have not increased significantly in the last few years, experts agree that the issue — both for pedestrians and drivers — is a serious problem in the state.

 According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Rhode Island currently ranks as the fourth most dangerous state for drunk driving.

Drunk driving accidents have not increased in recent years, said Gabrielle Abbate, executive director of Rhode Island’s MADD chapter. “It’s more like we’re stuck in neutral.”

Despite a decrease in total highway fatalities over the past few years, Rhode Island still reports a high number of fatalities related to alcohol impairment.

The official figures do not necessarily reflect the total number of incidents that occur, said Paul Porter, an emergency room doctor at Rhode Island Hospital. Porter said his hospital receives about 300 patients injured in vehicle accidents involving alcohol each year, though the actual number could be triple that amount. Lately, the hospital has seen an increase in the number of hit-and-run victims that it treats, he said.

But victims are not the only ones suffering on account of drunk driving.

State penalties for drunk driving are particularly onerous for the poor, said Andrew Horwitz, president of the Rhode Island Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and associate dean of academic affairs at Roger Williams University School of Law. “My opinion is that we have penalties for the first-time drunk driver that are too harsh and particularly punitive to poor people,” he said.

Since Rhode Island does not give convicted first-time drunk drivers a provisional license to drive to and from work or school, low-income individuals arrested for drunk driving are at high risk of becoming unemployed, Horwitz said. “The irony is they are asked to pay a huge set of fines and grossly exaggerated insurance rates.”

Local media coverage has downplayed the severity of penalties for drunk driving, Horwitz said. He pointed to a recent article on the front page of the Providence Journal contending that drunk drivers receive little more than “a slap on the wrist” for a first-time offense.  “If that’s the message the media is sending, it doesn’t matter what the laws are. If the belief on the street is that the consequences are inconsequential, you have no deterrence,” Horwitz said. He added that he submitted an op-ed to the Journal criticizing their portrayal of drunk driving penalties, but it was rejected.

Rhode Island media outlets have also been accused of sensationalizing drunk driving incidents. Barrington gained a reputation as a trouble spot for adolescent alcohol abuse after suffering three car fatalities and one boat fatality between 2005 and 2007 involving intoxicated teenagers.

“I actually created a lot of the media publicity,” said Barrington Police Chief John LaCross. LaCross said he felt obligated to report possession of alcohol and marijuana in the car of one of the victims to raise awareness in the community about the dangers of substance abuse. Often law enforcement officers hide the presence of drugs or alcohol in cases resulting in fatalities out of respect for the victims, he said.

“No one wants that publicity, but it was good because it made parents communicate with their kids,” Lacross said of the media attention following the accidents. In 2007, the year the most recent fatality occurred, 38 individuals were arrested for underage drinking. That number was 7 in 2010.

Lacross said other towns in Rhode Island, such as Glocester, have experienced as many as four drunk driving related fatalities in one year. Barrington’s affluence could also have attracted media attention, he said, adding that Barrington has continued to receive attention for drunk driving even though the town has not had a fatality in four years.

Experts contend that drunk driving laws are flawed. Horwitz said blood alcohol content should be given more consideration. Under current law, a driver with a blood alcohol content of .08 who hits someone they likely would have hit sober would receive a harsher penalty than someone with a blood alcohol content of .25 who crashes a car without injuring anyone, he added.

 Abbate disagrees. “An irresponsible action that hurts someone else should always be held to a higher standard,” she said. Changing attitudes towards drunk driving is key to confronting the problem, she added.

“There is no silver bullet to drunk driving, but we know what works,” Abbate said. “People have to admit there is a problem, take ownership and then support those measures. Drunk driving is everyone’s business.”