New Report Challenges Rhode Island Drunk Driving Statistics

January 9, 2006 12:00 am

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ACLU, Joined by Substance Abuse Experts, Says Push for Punitive Legislation is Ungrounded

PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today released a 35-page report that challenges recent, highly publicized claims about Rhode Island’s high alcohol fatality accident rate and the accompanying push for punitive drunk driving legislation at the State House this year. The report was released at a news conference today at which the ACLU and the Drug and Alcohol Treatment Association of Rhode Island (DATA) called for an emphasis on treatment and other non-punitive measures to address the problem of drunk driving.

“Although any drunk driving fatality is one too many, efforts to eradicate this problem should not be premised on misleading statistics or ungrounded expectations about the utility of punitive laws,” said Steven Brown, Executive Director of the ACLU of Rhode Island. “The ACLU report is an attempt to correct the many misconceptions about statistics and misunderstandings of some of the laws and police practices at issue, and to counter the unintentionally misleading use of some statistics regarding drunk driving in the state.”

Based largely on national reports describing Rhode Island as having the worst ranking in the country when it comes to drunk driving alcohol fatalities, there have been many calls for swift legislative action this year to address the state’s DUI problem. Such actions include bills that would criminalize sanctions for breathalyzer refusals and allow police to obtain warrants to forcibly extract bodily fluids from suspected drivers for chemical testing, and efforts to have the state Supreme Court reconsider a court ruling banning the use of drunk driving roadblocks – all proposals that pose potentially significant ramifications for civil liberties, the ACLU said

In its report, the ACLU charges that the particular statistic used to rate Rhode Island as the worst in terms of drunk driving fatalities is a very misleading one. In fact, according to data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the state’s alcohol fatality rate has been routinely lower than the national average for more than 20 years. But because Rhode Island’s overall rate of accident fatalities is lower than the national average, the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities appears so high, according to the report. The ACLU also cites NHTSA statistics showing there were 42 fatal alcohol-related crashes in Rhode Island in 2004, down 21 percent from the previous year and the lowest total since 2000.

Moreover, the ACLU report sheds light on current DUI laws and presents facts that call into question the need for or effectiveness of punitive measures the state’s lawmakers are currently considering.

Among the findings presented in the ACLU’s report are:

  • Contrary to popular belief, a driver cannot avoid a DUI arrest (or conviction) by refusing to take a breathalyzer test. In fact, the test isn’t offered until after the DUI arrest has already taken place. Thus, police who drop criminal DUI charges against drivers who have refused a breathalyzer test do so by choice, not because of prohibitions in the law.
  • One of the biggest problems in terms of DUI enforcement does not appear to be the absence of strict laws, but instead a failure by some police departments to make drunk driving a priority. In that regard, DUI arrest rates in Rhode Island have been close to the lowest in the nation for more than a decade.
  • Rhode Island’s breathalyzer refusal penalties are typical of, or higher than, those in most other states. At the same time, the state’s DUI penalties are also generally higher than those in most other states.
  • Few states in the country treat breathalyzer refusal as a criminal offense. Rhode Island’s civil penalties for refusal are not a “loophole” unique to the state.

The ACLU report concludes by noting that strategies to reduce drunk driving in the state need not sacrifice civil liberties in the process. It emphasizes non-punitive approaches to the drunk driving problem, including increased availability and funding of treatment programs, a suggestion that has virtually gone unspoken during the months of debate on the issue.

“Our goal in issuing this report is not to suggest that state officials should become complacent about the problem of drunk driving,” said Brown. “But our research does call into question many of the arguments being used to demand prompt and harsh legislative responses to the issue, as there are serious doubts about both their efficacy and need. We offer this analysis in the most positive sense – to promote a more constructive, knowledgeable and factually accurate debate on this important social issue.”

Supporting the conclusions of the ACLU report, DATA’s Executive Director Neil A. Corkery added: “Research demonstrates that a far more effective method of dealing with this complex issue is to provide much-needed treatment strategies that have proved successful in addressing the real issue underlying this public health scourge: alcoholism and drug addiction.” He noted that his organization and its substance abuse treatment and prevention service providers have supported measures to remove impaired drivers from the road, including support of .08 legislation, but cautioned against the punitive proposals examined in the report.

The ACLU’s report, Blurred Vision: A Sober Re-Examination of Rhode Island’s Drunk Driving “Crisis“, is available online at

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