A SOBERING ISSUE

Mass. lagging in the battle against drunk driving
By Pamela H. Sacks
SUNDAY TELEGRAM
2002

When Barbara Harrington took over as executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of MADD four years ago, she had experience in nonprofit work, but had little knowledge of the mayhem intoxication creates on the nation’s roads.

In March 1999, she got what MADD calls a “crash course in drunk driving.”

Ms. Harrington, who lives in Worcester, was returning from a board meeting on Cape Cod when she glanced in her rearview mirror and noticed a car coming up on her fast. She tried to get out of the way, but the driver slammed into the back of her car and then bounced off another vehicle.

She was uninjured but badly shaken. The driver, who was in his early 40s, tried to flee and then failed to appear in court. He had been convicted five of the seven times he had been arrested for drunken driving, but this offense was treated as his second because the judge was not allowed to consider convictions more than 10 years in the past.

Ms. Harrington made a victim impact statement. She wanted this man treated for alcoholism so that he would not continue to drive drunk. He got six months in a locked treatment facility, followed by two years of probation.

The story, with its odd twist, given Ms. Harrington’s position, was quickly picked up by media.

“It was very traumatic,” Ms. Harrington said the other day. “Many people referred to it as ironic. I’ll tell you what it was: It was random violence.”

Ms. Harrington’s victimization by a drunken driver was more likely to occur in this state than on the roads of nearly every other state in the nation. Here, 50 percent of fatal car crashes are alcohol-related, whereas the national average is 40 percent. Last year, 234 people were killed in drunken driving crashes on Bay State roads.
“That’s four people a week killed in alcohol-related crashes in Massachusetts,” said state Rep. Reed V. Hillman, a Sturbridge Republican and former superintendent of the Massachusetts State Police. “To me, that’s abhorrent.”
Americans as a whole are backsliding in the battle against drunken driving. When MADD was formed 22 years ago, 57 percent of traffic deaths were alcohol-related. The numbers went steadily down and hit a low of 38 percent in 1998.
Then, the drunken-driving deaths began creeping back up.
Alcohol-related crashes increased by 4 percent from 1999 to 2000, when 17,380 people were killed. The numbers released this month by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for 2001 are even more sobering: 17,448 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes, nearly 800 more than the federal agency had estimated earlier.
Those close to the problem point to public and political complacency as the culprit.
“We’ve done about as much as we can with general education,” said Matthew D. Shedd, who lost his daughter, Hilary, in a drunken driving crash in 1991 and serves as vice chairman of the MADD Massachusetts chapter. “We need to be serious about enforcement, serious in punishment, and we need to get serious with treatment.”
There is little question that Massachusetts is lagging in the battle against drunken driving. It is one of 34 states that have set .08 blood alcohol level as legal intoxication. But in Massachusetts a driver who police believe is intoxicated can refuse to submit to a Breathalyzer test, and 60 percent do, in part because it is only slightly more punitive to refuse than to take the test and fail. A refusal means an automatic 120-day license suspension, a failure, 90 days.
The problem is compounded by the failure of lawmakers to pass a “per se” law. Massachusetts is the only state in the nation without such a law on its books.
As things stand in the Bay State, if a driver has a blood alcohol level of .08 or above, there is a presumption of being under the influence of alcohol. The accused can choose a six-man jury, and the defense lawyer can argue that his client was not, in fact, impaired. Moreover, the jury cannot be told that the accused had refused to submit to a Breathalyzer test. The state constitution does not permit it.
Per se legislation makes it a crime to drive with .08 blood alcohol level or above. The prosecutor does not have to prove the driver was impaired. Once the jury finds that the driver operated with .08 or above, it would have to come in with a guilty verdict.
Both Ms. Harrington and Mr. Hillman express anger and frustration over the current state of affairs.
“We’re nationally notorious, especially over per se,” Ms. Harrington said. “We’re a laughing stock.”
The two contend that lawyers who defend people charged with drunken driving are holding up passage of a per se law. Three bills were filed during the last legislative session. None made it out of committee.
Efforts to obtain a comment from the Massachusetts Bar Association were unsuccessful.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has mandated that every state have a per se law by 2003 in order to qualify for federal highway safety funding. Mr. Hillman said Massachusetts already is paying a big price because it is not qualifying for a series of money incentives to implement per se. The state stands to lose $62 million in federal funding by 2007 if it does not comply.
He believes that many legislators are unaware of the situation.
“I had hoped to bring this up on the House floor, but when you can’t get it out of committee, you can’t bring it up in debate,” Mr. Hillman said.
He also wants the Legislature to change the law involving automatic license suspension, so that an intoxicated driver would be more likely to submit to a Breathalyzer. He would make the penalty for refusal 180 days and lessen the automatic suspension for a driver who tests .08 or higher.
“We want to encourage the taking of it because that way we have a scientific instrument determining how much alcohol is in your bloodstream,” Mr. Hillman said.
The rising statistics combined with a general perception that drunken driving is no longer a major problem has prompted some serious soul searching by national and state executives of MADD.
Begun as a grass-roots organization in 1980, MADD became known for pushing legislative initiatives. The group succeeded in lowering alcohol-related traffic deaths and made “designated driver” a household term.
Today, a wide swath of people who drink on an evening out understand the dangers of driving, and they won’t do it.
“After our long-term effort, we are left with the hardcore drinker and the young driver,” Ms. Harrington said.
In response, MADD has taken a new, tougher stance. For one thing, it has dropped its original name, “Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” and is using only MADD. It found it could do so because a study showed that the acronym was widely recognized.
In Massachusetts, Ms. Harrington is converting her 13-member paid staff and 50 active volunteers into a tight statewide team with a focused agenda. The group has moved its headquarters from Framingham to office space near the Statehouse in Boston and will hire lobbyists to get a per se law passed.
The group is working more closely with the state Department of Public Health on underage drinking. Earlier this year, the state agency and MADD participated in a comprehensive study of the problem with the Harvard Medical School, Children’s Hospital Boston and The Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse.
“One of the things I’m proud about is our positions are based on research, not emotion,” Ms. Harrington said.
The study, published in May, indicates, among other things, that 80 percent of high school students drink.
“Alcohol use is related to the three leading causes of death for adolescents: traffic crashes and other unintentional injuries, homicide and suicide,” the study states.
“You read about other drugs, and it’s not even close in terms of percentage,” Mr. Shedd said. “Alcohol is an accepted part of social life. It kills 6.5 times more young people than all the other illicit drugs combined.”
MADD also sponsored a youth summit in May and invited 83 high school students to spend three days drawing up a list of 10 recommendations. They were particularly enthused about working on ways young people can become savvy about commercials that make drinking appear glamorous and fun.
“Part of the purpose of the summit was to train students on activism through their communities, the Legislature and the media,” said Amy Fradette, youth coordinator. “We wanted to send home 83 students who were stronger activists and strengthen their conviction that it’s OK to be a nonuser and that their decision is a good decision.”
MADD’s new approach already seems to be reaping rewards.
Earlier this month, Gov. Jane M. Swift signed a law that permits the 10-year limitation on looking back at records to second offenders only. When sentencing an offender convicted three or more times, the judge will be able to take the entire record under consideration.
“The new law allows one bite at the apple,” Mr. Shedd said.
It will help, but Mr. Hillman said there’s a long way to go.
“I don’t think we can get the fatalities down to zero,” he said, “but through legislation we can reduce the carnage by many dozens.”