|A Patriot Ledger series: Summary | PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | UPDATES|
“It’s the first-time offender who really needs to be addressed. If we can do that in a substantive and thoughtful manner we can in fact reduce the tragedy of drinking and driving in Massachusetts.”
— Frank M. Hynes,
“It just struck me at the end of this summer and the start of the school year how many young people were killed or hurt by drinking and driving,” Hynes said. “That has to make anyone sit up and recognize the problem.”
Hynes also credited a special report in The Patriot Ledger, “Driving to Endanger,” for convincing him of the need to clamp down on first-time offenses, which are often treated as petty crimes.
“The science seems to tell us the first time is the best time to get people’s attention,” he said. “That was the most instructive part of the series, that it’s the first-time offender who really needs to be addressed. If we can do that in a substantive and thoughtful manner we can in fact reduce the tragedy of drinking and driving in Massachusetts.”
The series, published in November, described how a 10,000-word state law treats drunken driving lightly compared with laws in other states, gives judges wide latitude in sentencing and allows even chronic drunken drivers to claim hardship to get their licenses back. An overloaded court system, cutbacks in alcohol treatment and a Legislature reluctant to adopt tougher sentencing mandates also contribute to the problem, according to prosecutors, police and anti-drunken-driving advocates.
As a result, Massachusetts has one of the nation’s worst track records for dealing with drunken drivers, both first-time and habitual offenders. Only four states have a greater percentage of alcohol-related fatalities than Massachusetts, federal highway safety reports show. And while the percentage of fatalities caused by drunken driving has declined nationally during the past 20 years, Massachusetts’ rate has declined more slowly than the national average, and only marginally since 1993.
Hynes, who sent out some 7,000 questionnaires to poll constituents’ opinions on the issue, said initial responses show strong support for toughening drunken driving laws.
“It seems to be a recognition that there has been a tolerance at least in the first time a person is arrested for drunken driving,” he said. “It is in our society and it is reflected in the laws. It’s almost a ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ attitude.”
Hynes said his legislation will call for more rigorous punishment and rehabilitation for first-time offenders.
“The judge has discretion to suspend the person’s license and directs the person to get into a drunken driving program,” he said. “That is not monitored well, and most people treat that very cavalierly. It’s just a condition for them to get their license back.”
Hynes also wants to hold drunken drivers more accountable for the property damage, insurance and medical costs they impose on their victims.
“We’re looking at making sure the victims are compensated for their losses,” he said. “If there are any kind of injuries that are not covered adequately by insurance, the perpetrator will be responsible for that.”
Hynes, who hopes to unveil his legislation later this winter, can expect to run up against opposition. A number of state legislators double as defense attorneys, and many have fought previous efforts to toughen the laws.
Faced with the loss of federal highway money, Massachusetts in 2003 became the last state in the nation to adopt a law that defines a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent as irrefutable proof in court that a person is legally drunk.
Defense attorneys argue that drunken driving laws here and across the country are the only laws that permit a person accused of a crime to be penalized without being convicted, something that happens every time an accused driver refuses to submit to a field sobriety test or take a police-administered blood alcohol breath test. Drunken driving is also the only crime a defendant can be convicted of solely on the testimony of one police officer, defense lawyers say.
Members of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Criminal Justice, which would likely review Hynes’ proposals, say they’ll take a serious look at the legislation.
Committee member Robert L. Hedlund, a Republican senator from Weymouth, said he’s also concerned with the ability of repeat offenders to avoid a just punishment.
“My concern is with our habitual offenders,” Hedlund said. “As we’ve seen in a number of high-profile cases, they’re able to beat the system in many cases and get back on the road.”
Hedlund is co-sponsoring legislation that would double the penalties and sanctions for drunken drivers who have children in their cars.
“It’s bad enough you are endangering everyone else on the road, but to actually have a child in the car makes it so much more egregious and increases the potential for a tragedy,” he said.
Sen. Michael W. Morrissey, D-Quincy, who also sits on the criminal justice committee, said societal attitudes are equally important in reducing drunken driving.
“Over the years we’ve gone through a gradual change,” Morrissey said. “Drunk driving was generally more accepted in years gone by; that’s not the case today.”
Massachusetts received a D-minus last year from Mothers Against Drunk Driving for its drunken driving laws. The only lower grade was Montana’s F.
Tom Benner may be reached at .
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