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Massachusetts poorly ranked for drunk driving measures

Mothers Against Drunk Driving released a report Wednesday that ranked Massachusetts as the 36th worst state for how it handles drunk driving incidents and prevention.

The report examined several categories of drunk driving countermeasures, and offered steps for improvement as part of MADD’s Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving. Massachusetts received two out of five stars for its efforts, the same score it received last year.

Julia Murphy, 27, of Allston, said she thought Massachusetts would rank lower due to the state’s drinking culture.

It is sort of surprising to me actually,” Murphy said. “Somehow, I thought we’d be higher up on that list, like worse, just because the drinking culture in Massachusetts is pretty intense.” 

The main category of evaluation in the report was the enforcement of an all-offender ignition interlock law. This type of law would call for first-time drunk driving offenders — with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 and higher — to install a system requiring they pass an in-car breathalyzer test before starting their vehicle.

Ignition interlocks stopped over 31,000 drunk drivers from starting their vehicles between 2006 and 2016, according to MADD’s data. In response to these numbers, the group called for the expansion of Melanie’s Law, which established an ignition interlock law for repeat drunk driving offenders. MADD called for it to be expanded to all first-time offenders in Massachusetts.

Michael Siegel, a community health science professor at Boston University, said the implementation of ignition interlocks on a larger scale would meaningfully reduce the drunk driving rate.   

“When these interlocks are used, they are effective in reducing re-arrest rates,” Siegel said. “The problem is that the programs are limited because not a lot of offenders are put into these programs, so there needs to be more widespread and sustained use of the ignition interlocks.”

Speaking from personal experience, Liza Campiglio, 27, of Allston, said she supports the enforcement of a strengthened ignition interlock law because in-car breathalyzers have encouraged her friends to have safer drinking habits.

I do think a breathalyzer test is a good solution for [drunk driving],” Campiglio said. “I’ve had friends who have issues with drunk driving and they had to get that installed, and so far, it has worked for them to stay on the path of sobriety.”

Legislation is currently being considered in the state to increase the presence of ignition interlocks by allowing drunk driving offenders to opt for the installation of an interlock system.

In the report, Massachusetts was also penalized for its weak laws toward people who refuse an alcohol test when they are stopped by law enforcement. MADD recommended the criminalization of refusing an alcohol test, and expedited search warrants for suspected drunk drivers as ways for Massachusetts to strengthen these laws.  

The ability for drivers to refuse an alcohol test offers a problematic loophole to avoid criminal conviction, Siegel said.

“We also don’t have a criminal penalty for people who refuse an alcohol test,” Siegel said. “That’s a major problem because all someone has to do is refuse to take the alcohol test and it makes it very hard to get a conviction.”

The final major recommendation in the report was to make driving drunk with a child in the vehicle a felony.

The report also included data analyzing the effect of drunk driving on automobile accidents in Massachusetts. Of all traffic fatalities in the state, 31 percent were due to drunk driving, resulting in 119 annual drunk driving deaths, according to MADD’s 2016 data.

Addressing impaired driving must be an ongoing priority in Massachusetts given the number of fatal auto accidents that occur even when drivers aren’t impaired, said Ian Alley, 37, of Fenway.

“People lose their lives so frequently in just regular auto accidents,” Alley said. I think that [drunk driving] is something that needs to be ongoingly addressed, especially now, just for driving impaired in general.”

 

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