Op Ed: A Common Sense Bill to Reduce Drunken Driving and Improve Road Safety

By State Rep. Timothy Whelan (R-Brewster)
State Rep. Timothy Whelan (R-Brewster)

It starts with a knock on the door in the middle of the night.  A loud rap, alarming family members who are looking out the window to make sure it is not an intruder.  "Who is it" the question is asked.  "Trooper Whelan of the Massachusetts State Police, Ma'am.  I need you to please open the door so we can speak".  And as the door opens, I know that I am about to deliver news to this family that will forever change their lives.  News that their child has perished in an automobile crash.  

This is a scene played out too many times over my three decades serving in law enforcement.  It is also a scene that will unfortunately be played out hundreds of times every year across our Commonwealth.  In 2015 Massachusetts reported 326 lives lost due to motor vehicle crashes.  118 of those souls were lost in alcohol-related crashes.  Despite a combination of public awareness campaigns to deter drunk driving, law enforcement's best efforts to stop drunk driving, and prosecutors best efforts to hold drunk drivers accountable, 118 sons and daughters, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers lost their lives on our roads in just one year.  

One Massachusetts family who suffered the loss of their beloved child, a son who was on patrol serving in the Hillsborough County (FL.) Sheriff's Office when a wrong way driver hit his patrol car at a high rate of speed, is the Kotfila family of Falmouth.  Deputy "John Robert" Kotfila Jr. maneuvered his patrol car into the path of the wrong way operator, using his patrol car as a shield to protect a motorist and her passenger in another car, essentially sacrificing himself for two individuals he never met.  John Robert's life and sacrifice will live on in the works of his family, including his father, John Sr., who is a close friend and someone whom I worked with on the Massachusetts State Police for many years.  

John and Theresa Kotfila have turned their family's tragedy into a burning desire to advocate for common sense laws that will improve safety on our roadways.  Every life saved is a promise for the future, if we are willing to examine successes seen in other states.  The Kotfila's have joined with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) in advocating for passage of H.872.  This bill would require that persons convicted of OUI (1st offense) install an interlock system in their vehicles, insuring their sobriety before driving.

Rep. Lou Kafka (D-Stoughton) is a close friend and one of those common sense legislators who has worked closely with MADD in crafting this comprehensive bill.  In my experienced professional opinion, the bill takes a firm position to use common sense practice and technologies to prevent repeat drunk driving offenses, while also making allowances for 1st time offenders to get their right to operate back sooner, so these folks can continue to work and be productive members of our society.  These offenders would be able to drive to work to support their families and pay taxes, and further be able to drive themselves to AA meetings and counseling services, reducing the likelihood of repeat offenses.

Let's take a look at some of the reasons for this legislation:

 

  1.      Suspending OUI offenders’ licenses does NOT stop them from driving — 75% of offenders continue to drive on a suspended license and there is no safeguard to prevent drinking and driving. By allowing offenders to obtain an ignition interlock license immediately upon notice of suspension, the Commonwealth keeps these drivers in the system, subject to oversight and accountability, and ensures they cannot start the vehicle after drinking.  It also provides the offender the tools they need to go to treatment programs, continue working and to maintain family responsibilities – all of which help to rehabilitate irresponsible behavior and reduce recidivism.
  2.      Hardship licenses operate on the honor system and do not ensure the driver is sober – ignition interlock licensesdevices use technology to actually prevent drunk driving. In the past 11 years, ignition interlocks in Massachusetts alone have prevented OUI offenders with two or more offenses from starting their vehicles drunk (.08 BAC) more than 31,800 times and after drinking (.02 BAC) more than 240,000 times.  These instances do not take into account the number of times OUI offenders chose not to even attempt driving after drinking as a result of the ignition interlock device.  Traditional hardship licenses, without an ignition interlock device, operate on the honor system and do not prevent an intoxicated driver from starting his or her car and putting the public at risk.
  3.      A “first offense” correlates to an average of 80 (and as many as 200) prior episodes of drunk driving, before the driver is stopped and charged.  Because the vast majority of “first time” offenders have already had repeat episodes of drinking and driving, safeguards are needed to prevent additional repeat offenses.  Ignition interlocks drastically reduce recidivism while the device is installed, but also demonstrate 39% lower re-arrest rates after the device is removed.
  4.      Ignition interlock devices increase offender accountability for the benefit of the Commonwealth, the public, family and employers. Ignition interlocks require responsible driving and provide for a level of state oversight that is not possible without the device’s technology.  The increased accountability and oversight available with ignition interlock devices afford OUI offenders the ability to continue to work, meet family obligations and maintain overall productivity without risking public safety.

 

     In my own career-based test sample, I as well as other career police officers, will attest to the accuracy of the above.  Many persons convicted of OUI will, in fact, continue to drive even though their license is suspended.  The kids still need to be picked up at pre-school.  Mom still needs to get to work.  The grocery store isn't close enough to walk to.  The reasons are voluminous, but the end result is the same, many convicted drunk drivers will continue to drive even while under license suspension.  Hardship, or "Cinderella", licenses are also commonly used outside of the applicable hours and, again, there is no "fail-safe" system to insure that the convicted drunk driver is not repeat offending.  H. 872 will change that.

 

What does H. 872 do?  Well, let's take a look:

 

  1.      Expands the ignition interlock requirements to first offenders.  Massachusetts is one of only two states that does not use ignition interlocks for first offenders. First-time offenders, as noted above, generally drive drunk an average of 80 times, and as many as 200 times, before being arrested.  First offenders are six times more likely to get a second OUI.  States mandating ignition interlocks for all offenders, including first offenders, benefit from a 7-15% reduction in fatal alcohol-related crashes.  A state’s experience year-to-year with all offender laws, as measured by Mother’s Against Drunk Driving, can show a 15-50% reduction in fatalities.  All offender ignition interlock laws provide a significant public health benefit.  
  2.      Replaces the hardship licenses with ignition interlock restricted licenses (drug/controlled substance OUIs may still be able to get a hardship license).  By requiring ignition interlock devices for all alcohol-OUI offenders as a precondition of full re-licensure, the legislation avoids the traditional hardship license’s biggest shortcoming – the lack of any safeguards against repeated episodes of driving under the influence of alcohol. 
  3.      Eliminates periods of “hard license suspension.”  NHTSA data shows up to 80% of people with a suspended license continue to drive. Massachusetts has periods of hard license suspensions before a person can apply for an ignition interlock license.  These suspensions create windows of time where offenders do not remain in the system, subject to the oversight that exists for all individuals with a driver’s license. Eliminating hard suspension periods in favor of granting ignition interlock restricted licenses provides greater oversight and assurance that the person is not driving under the influence, while also maintaining an ability to hold the driver accountable (i.e. insurance, terms of probation, fines, etc.). License suspension is not proven to prevent people from driving, sober or intoxicated. The CDC has shown that ignition interlocks increase driving compliance and reduce recidivism an average of 67% while installed and 39% after removal.  
  4.      Incentivizes taking the Breathalyzer. Drivers who refuse to take the Breathalyzer and are subsequently convicted of an OUI cannot obtain day-for-day credit for ignition interlock use during the 180-day administrative “suspension” period.  
  5.      Includes stronger, objective compliance-based removal language, which requires driver to have a “clean” record with no incidents of test fails, failure to take required rolling test, failure to pass random test, attempt to remove device or failure to appear before vendor for scheduled maintenance within the 6-month period prior to request for removal.  This provides ability to immediately revoke ignition interlock license for failure to comply with terms of probation to further incent compliance. 
  6.      Strengthens program compliance measures. Includes mandatory restrictions on ignition interlock licenses, including proof that such device is certified and functional as well as a requirement that such a device be installed on all vehicles to be operated by the person.  Requires the Registrar to promulgate a schedule for adoption of camera-equip ignition interlocks for all offenders. Provides that judges may specifically consider the a person’s compliance with the ignition interlock license program when evaluating a case ruling of continued without a finding.
  7.      Establishes an indigent program wherein ignition interlock service and monitoring entities applying for certification with the RMV are required to provide devices and services at 50% off all total costs for individuals who demonstrate to the Registrar substantial financial hardship with documentation.

 

     So, where does this bill sit now and we go from here? 

     Good question.  This bill enjoys the co-sponsorship of 43 legislators from both sides of the aisle, and both the House and Senate.  I was proud to join with John and Theresa Kotfila to testify in front of Committee, hoping for a favorable report so this bill can advance through the complicated legislative process and land on Governor Baker's desk.  This bill currently sits with the Joint Committee on the Judiciary where it awaits recommendation and is being considered in the conference committee appointed to develop a final Criminal Justice reform bill.  Any support for this bill you can offer to your own state legislators will certainly help all of us in advancing this bill and saving lives.  Your voice, the voice of a concerned constituent, always garners attention on Beacon Hill and I humbly ask you to use that voice to help MADD, the Kotfila family, and the families of so many others lost to the scourge of drunk driving to find peace in knowing their efforts to pass this bill will save other families from the tragedies that visited theirs.  This bill may save your family someday.


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