A formula for death: Sheriff lays down DUI rules
By Philip Devitt
Drinking and driving should never mix, but when they do, the consequences can be devastating.
"Any time you take on the responsibility of getting behind the wheel of a car, you have to recognize that how you operate that vehicle could impact the lives of not just you and the people in the car, but anybody you encounter along the way," Bristol County sheriff Tom Hodgson said.
"Whenever anyone is behind the wheel of a car and they're under the influence, it's a problem," he said. "It's a serious problem because if you don't have control, it ultimately becomes a weapon that can easily kill.
In 2003, a new drunk driving law was enacted in Massachusetts. Under this law, if a motorist is found to have a Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) of at least .08 percent, they are legally under the influence. Before the new measure, which was filed by Governor Mitt Romney, Massachusetts law did not make clear whether someone with a .08 BAC was truly drunk.
If someone is convicted of driving under the influence, it results in an automatic one year license suspension. If they are caught driving during the suspension, they are required to serve 60 days in the House of Correction.
According to Hodgson, strict law enforcement and legal consequences have stabilized the problem.
"I don't think we're getting to a point where it's becoming a more serious problem," he said. "I think it is in part due to there being more awareness about drunk driving and the legal issues surrounding it."
In 2002, nearly 18,000 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes in the US. 86 percent of them were considered legally drunk.
"Certainly, the penalties are more severe than they have been in the past, and what led to that was that there were more and more people being killed in drunk driving accidents," Hodgson said.
Hodgson also said that teens in the new millennium have more freedom than teens did in the past, which has allowed for more risk-taking.
"Kids now have the ability to take their own vehicle out, whereas when I was growing up, they had to go to their parents and ask them for the keys," he said. "You always had to be aware that you were using your father's car and if you planned on using it again, you better not be out drinking.
"Today, more kids have their cars at 16 and 17 because their parents can afford it. Sometimes, not having that oversight by parents gives kids the opportunity to take more chances."
Hodgson believes education about drunk driving should be required in all schools, but the most important education comes from the home.
"Making kids aware of the consequences that come along with their choices is the most important thing," he said. "Schools are doing that to a large extent. Education about alcohol abuse ought to be mandatory in all schools, particularly in junior high, where kids are starting to understand that the person you are in a car with can ultimately be the person who determines whether you live or die. But it's critically important that it start with the family. It's important that the discussion take place with mom, dad, and the kids."
Despite how well some know the consequences, they still drink and drive.
"I think that peer pressure, wanting to be accepted, and some feelings of invincibility are common reasons teens still drink and drive," Hodgson said. "I think some regard it as fun and don't really take the consequences that seriously. Maybe they don't know someone personally who has died because of a drunk driver, so they haven't felt the pain that goes along with that."
Thanks to drunk driving prevention courses set up by Bristol County law enforcers, some students do get the opportunity to meet those directly affected by drunk driving.
"We have someone on our staff who goes to the schools and brings prosthetics of her son's, who was actually paralyzed as the result of drunk driving," Hodgson said. "She does a 'show and tell' about what it's like for her son to have to struggle through every day and to really live a life that offers no quality. She is able to relate to kids and say, 'Look, I've lived it.'"
Putting students face to face with people who suffer with the results of drunk driving often makes it more realistic.
"We do everything we can to get those programs into the schools and to prevent families from going through what so many other families have gone through," Hodgson said. "It brings some reality to the situation because it is real. Somebody can talk about how it not only had an impact on their child, but how it had an impact on the whole family.
"I think it's easier to relate to that, hearing it from somebody, and seeing the pain and sadness in their eyes. That's not something you get in a textbook."
With prom season and graduation approaching, Hodgson stressed that it is critical for students to use extra caution on the road.
"There is a greater likelihood of drunk driving accidents at the end of the school year because of the number of parties," he said. "It's the excitement of having accomplished something and feeling that nothing bad can happen. Sometimes, kids can get into reckless decision-making that can ultimately lead to someone getting killed.
"It's wrong that some people have the idea that having a good time is being able to be in control of the vehicle, but still drink alcohol. Some people are risk takers. Some people will go out and not worry about the risk because it's more important for them to drink."
Although not everyone drinks for the same reasons, the consequences of getting behind the wheel intoxicated are the same.
"Some use alcohol to self-medicate," Hodgson said. "They aren't looking to be reckless but they find themselves not knowing when to stop. It's important to remember that if you feel you need to drink alcohol, for fun or any other reason, that you don't get behind the wheel. And don't get in a car with someone else who's been drinking. They might not have control, but you also have no control over the fact that they don't have control. That's a formula for death."
In an effort to make young people more aware of the consequences of drunk driving, the Bristol County House of Corrections participates in Project Slam, a program that shows troubled teens what life is like in prison.
"With Project Slam, the kids get to see what the long-term consequences could be for the choices they make," Hodgson said. "They go inside the prison, see how the inmates live, and realize that they could throw their entire lives away based on a stupid decision. We hope kids will get the message."
No matter how much or how little a person drinks, they still put themselves and others at risk when they get behind the wheel.
"When some kids hear about drunk driving accidents on the news, they try to convince themselves that they won't be as reckless and get themselves killed," Hodgson said. "The problem is that when people start drinking, they have a difficult time deciding what is too much. You can think that alcohol is making you have a good time, but in the context of a lifetime in a wheelchair, it is never worth it."
© Philip Devitt