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STOP-DWI seminar suggests research shows efforts lagging

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Posted: Wednesday, September 22, 2010 12:35 am | Updated: 12:58 am, Wed Sep 22, 2010.

BATAVIA -- The state's law enforcement agencies, courts, citizens' organizations and counseling and rehabilitation groups have done a good job in attacking the problem of driving while intoxicated but results from those efforts have leveled off in the past decade.

An estimated 90 people from throughout Western New York gathered at the Batavia Holiday Inn Tuesday for "DWI: What You Don't Know," a seminar sponsored by Genesee County's STOP-DWI program.

One purpose was to provide stakeholders in related fields with results from the most recent drinking and driving research and try to come up with different ways to address the issue.

Rich Devlin, of the Governor's Traffic Safety Committee said, said Commissioner of Motor Vehicles David Swartz pushed for creation of a task force several years ago, after he realized that number of alcohol-related driving arrests per year, statewide, had stopped decreasing.

Institute for Traffic Safety is a non-profit corporation affiliated with the University at Albany's Rockefeller College.

In the past five years, the number of motorists charged with driving while intoxicated or driving while impaired by alcohol remained almost constant, an annual average of about 64,000. The more troubling number was the average of first-time offenders was stubbornly stable, 49,000 per year, according to the institute's research.

"That was shocking to me," said Rod MacDonald, senior research associate with the Institute for Traffic Safety.

In 2009 the institute commissioned an in-depth phone survey of New Yorkers on drunk driving. Researchers also talked to DWI offenders at focus groups, to seek their opinions on how the system works -- or doesn't.

Other statistics and charts unveiled Tuesday backed up MacDonald and Devlin's comments.

The volume of DWI arrests had shown a steady decline from the 1980s, the first years of stepped up community outcry and police enforcement, through the 1990s. Prior to the late 1970s and early '80s drunk driving was not a serious crime and "wasn't morally wrong," MacDonald said

Several other statistics extrapolated from the research data were also significant and of concern to members of the traffic institute and STOP-DWI coordinators. There are about 11.3 million licensed drivers in New York and in the past year 1.7 million of them, 15 percent, had three or more drinks before getting behind the wheel. on at least one occasion.

Fifteen percent of the people surveyed also believed it was unlikely they would be stopped by a police officer while drinking and driving. There's also an estimated 85,000 New York residents drinking and driving each day of the year.

"We thought those were very conservative calculations," said research scientist Ken Carpenter, former executive director of the traffic safety institute.

The subgroup of 1.7 million, the diehards, "hasn't changed their behavior," he said.

"Things have not improved. What can we do to get off that plateau?" said Rod MacDonald.

Alcohol-related traffic fatalities showed the same sort of statistical pattern as DWI and DWAI arrests. There were almost 1,000 such deaths in 1981 but the figure decreased annually and is now around 350 per year.

The decline during the past three decades shows the effectiveness of enforcement, rehabilitation and education efforts. However, the 350 annual average has leveled off in the past five years and the incidence of alcohol-related car crashes has increased slightly.

Police officers, STOP-DWI coordinators, traffic safety board members, treatment professionals and counselors, lawmakers, advocacy groups, judges, court clerks and probation and parole officials attended Tuesday STOP-DWI forum.

Traffic institute officials also reviewed results of interview conducted with DWAI and DWI offenders who were on probation or enrolled in court-mandated drinking and driving programs.

Seven themes emerged from comments solicited from focus groups composed of offenders:

-- Most of them were drinking and driving several times a week.

-- Most knew other people who did the same thing and it was not a deterrent to having a few drinks and getting behind the wheel.

-- They believe they are invincible, that they are good drivers when under the influence of alcohol and there's no way they would get caught by police.

Recent data show the likelihood of getting a DWI has increased.

The statistical chance of getting arrested for DWAI or DWI 30 years ago was one in 1,500. That decreased to about one in 500 in 2008, the most recent year that data were available.

-- The majority of offenders thought penalties for DWI were too lenient and that there should be no negotiation on any fines or sanctions.

-- The cost of fines and surcharges was not a deterrent to drinking and driving, although the research was conducted before Leandra's Law was enacted in late 2009. The new statute mandates ignition interlock devices on vehicles used by a person convicted of DWI.

Penalties for repeat DWI offenders should be more strict.

-- All DWI sentences should include medical treatment, if appropriate.

-- Public education programs and public service announcements should be more graphic in showing accidents, use accurate information and feature real people instead of actors. The education component should start with children before they reach an age when they can legally drive.

Tuesday's seminar was the last of three to take place this year. The events were sponsored by the state's STOP-DWI Foundation.

The traffic institute will summarize all the comments it received from the three meetings. A deterence team within the state DWI task force will study the findings and issue recommendations on possible changes in programs and policy.

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