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Part Three: In the name of the law

Seeking ways to deter drunk driving


Stories and photos by Amelia Kuhardt
Published Sept. 28, 2010, The Quincy Patriot Ledger


HINGHAM, MA — Walk nine steps, heel to toe, pivot and walk back. Stand on one leg, count to 30. Say the alphabet. Giving those instructions has become routine for local police officers – sadly so, said Hingham police Sgt. Steven Dearth, given extensive education, prevention and legal efforts by law enforcement and policymakers to combat drunken driving.

“It comes down to: the person has to decide not to … get behind the wheel,” Dearth said of people who have been drinking. “If you can’t prevent them from getting behind the wheel, then you take them off the road (arresting them).”

Yet many people do not get caught every time they have too many drinks then drive. Getting away with it may reinforce the behavior. And there’s the larger problem: that many women, as well as men, don’t equate drinking and driving with other legal hazards.

“People don’t think of it as the crime that it is,” said Nancy Powell of Marshfield, whose 13-year-old daughter Melanie was struck and killed by a drunken driver in 2003. And, Dearth notes, that perception holds true for all, regardless of their age, sex or tax bracket. Thus, efforts to keep drunken driving in check – whether through education, sobriety checks or laws – must cross gender, as well as all other lines, say those leading the fight against drunken driving.

“Anybody can have too much alcohol and choose to get behind the wheel,” said Dearth.

Powell’s family has been on the front lines of this battle. Pamela Murphy got two years behind bars after hitting and killing Melanie in Marshfield – even though she’d been convicted in an earlier case of drinking and driving.

Two years after the crash, the Legislature passed “Melanie’s Law” to beef up drunken-driving penalties. (Murphy, for one, would have gotten five years after killing Melanie.) The law has also done other things, such as spurring installation of ignition interlock devices – which force drivers to test their blood-alcohol level in order to start their cars – for 4,000 second and subsequent offenders, according to the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Powell said Melanie’s Law aims to promote deterrence, not get vengeance. “Melanie’s Law, to us, isn’t about getting people in trouble,” she said. “It’s about saving them. It’s taking them off the road and educating them.”

Still, activists say more can – and should – be done. That includes efforts like a bill filed by state Sen. Robert Hedlund, a Weymouth Republican, to make ignition interlocks mandatory for first-time OUI offenders.

Other tools could help keep drunken drivers off the road. For example, the federal government and the Automotive Coalition for Traffic Safety have funded research to set up a passive detection system that would disable any car if the driver’s blood-alcohol level is 0.08 percent or higher.

“Melanie’s Law is a beginning,” Powell said of the continuing efforts. “Obviously, if there are still people losing … lives, we still have so much more that we can do.”

Dearth has been active in Hingham and regionally, trying to get the word out. Still, he and others focused on drunken driving realize that laws and sobriety checks aren’t the ultimate solution. What frustrates him most, he said, is that drunken driving can be prevented – if people simply make a conscious effort to get a designated driver, stay in or opt not to drink.

“A person chooses to drink, and they choose to get behind the wheel,” Dearth said. “It’s certainly something we can eliminate.”

Female drunk driving arrests up 155%
in Hingham

HINGHAM, MA — While the state does not detail drunken driving arrests on a town-by-town basis, Hingham police Sgt. Steven Dearth laid out the drastic increase in his community:

There has been a 155 percent rise in women’s OUI arrests in Hingham from 1999 (11 arrests) to 2009 (28 arrests).

In the last year, that gap got even bigger: 28 women were arrested in Hingham for OUI in 2009, a 65 pecent rise over the previous year.

That upward trend is slated to continue: In the first six months of 2010, 17 women have been arrested for driving drunk in Hingham, which would translate to 34 arrests for the year.

That includes four women – from ages 49 to 65 – all arrested on Route 228 in the two-day period of Aug. 17 and 18, 2010. One woman was arrested at 1:10 p.m., and the other three were arrested between 6 and 11:30 p.m..

Summary of Melanie’s Law

BOSTON, MA — On Oct. 28, 2005, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney signed “Melanie’s Law,” a measure that increased drunken-driving penalties. It also required installation of ignition interlock devices for repeat drunk drivers.

The law was named after Melanie Powell, a 13-year-old Marshfield girl killed in 2003 by a woman who was driving drunk despite a previous offense.

What the law does:

* Lengthens license suspensions for refusing a Breathalyzer test: six months for drivers 21 and older with no prior convictions for drunken driving and 3 1/2 years for drivers under 21 and no prior convictions

* Requires anyone with two or more drunk driving arrests to have an ignition interlock device installed to prevent his or her car from starting if alcohol is detected on his or her breath.

* Creates a new crime for driving drunk with a passenger younger than 14.

* Creates a lifetime “look back” period for drunken-driving offenses. When a repeat offender is charged, all previous offenses are counted – no matter how long ago they occurred. Previously, such convictions dating back more than 10 years were not counted.

* Authorizes authorities to seize the motor vehicle of a person arrested on a fourth or subsequent dunk driving charge.

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