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Accidents waiting to happen

Thousands of the state's drivers have histories of multiple crashes

Email|Print| Text size + By Matt Carroll and Connie Paige
Globe Correspondent / February 10, 2008

Craig P. Bigos had a history of bad driving long before he headed down a darkened street to his girlfriend's house in Taunton late last year.

He was driving on an expired license, had two previous accidents, and at least six tickets.

In late December, Bigos allegedly hit and killed a 13-year-old boy while texting a message. He has been charged with motor vehicle homicide and leaving the scene of an accident in a case that has shocked the Bay State.

A review of state records shows that Bigos, who has pleaded not guilty, is far from alone when it comes to long histories of bad driving.

Some 87,000 drivers in Massachusetts - of 4.7 million statewide - were involved in two or more accidents from 2002 to June 2007. Of those 87,000, about 8,400 had been in three accidents, nearly 1,100 were in four accidents, and about 220 were in five or more accidents.

The Globe, using data from the Registry of Motor Vehicles, examined 750,000 crash records between January 2002 and last June.

The analysis shows men are more often in accidents than women. Thirty percent of the accidents involve drivers 25 or younger. Accidents are more likely to occur on Fridays and to occur during rush hours or after midnight.

Despite laws aimed at habitual offenders, some of the state's worst drivers continue to get behind the wheel. A Globe examination of state and local driving records found:

A Tewksbury man was in at least 14 accidents since 1988. He has been ticketed eight times - once for a moped violation.

In Kingston, a 55-year-old man was killed in 2004 by a repeat offender who was on his way to an appointment at a methadone clinic. The driver is serving a 2 1/2-year sentence for vehicular homicide. His license was revoked for the third time, this time for 15 years.

A 76-year-old farmer from Upton plowed his tractor into a truck driven by an off-duty police officer one frigid January morning in 2005. He has had five crashes in six years, but still drives every morning to Framingham to pick up feed for his cows, his wife said.

Accidents of any kind are relatively rare for most drivers, the data show. Of 4.7 million people on the road, about 3.5 million were not in any accidents during those years.

The financial impact of accidents is staggering. Massachusetts has more auto property accident claims than any other state, nearly double the national average, according to the insurance industry.

The cost of property repairs and medical bills for accidents caused by drivers in two or more crashes was more than $100 million in 2006, according to an analysis of insurance industry data. Part of that multimillion dollar tab is plucked straight from the wallets of good drivers.

The average annual insurance premium is $859 for an experienced driver with a spotless record, a price that is inflated by about one-third, partly to subsidize bad drivers or high-risk drivers, such as those living in neighborhoods where there are many accidents.

The state is switching to a competitive auto insurance system, which is expected to cut the premiums of two-thirds of all drivers by at least 5 percent. At the same time, premiums on bad drivers cannot be raised by more than 10 percent, according to state rules. It's unclear how the new system will effect the subsidy that good drivers pay to support bad drivers.

The state has also taken some steps to target bad drivers.

Currently, Massachusetts drivers can lose their licenses for a number of reasons. Three speeding tickets in a year can trigger a 30-day suspension; a combination of seven at-fault accidents or moving violations within three years brings a 60-day suspension. New rules aimed at junior operators - drivers under the age of 18 - can strip a driver of his or her license for 90 days for one speeding ticket.

In recent years, the state has taken other steps to toughen driving laws to make the streets safer.

"Melanie's Law," passed in 2005, strips drivers of their license for life if they are convicted of driving drunk five or more times. Mandatory minimum jail sentences for manslaughter by motor vehicle have been increased from two to five years. Junior operators - drivers under the age of 18 - lose their license for 90 days for their first speeding ticket, plus face fines and need to attend special driving classes, under a law that went into effect this year.

Legislation is also pending on Beacon Hill to ban drivers from text-messaging and using hand-held phones.

The overall portrait of the state's drivers turns up some odd combinations, said Registrar Anne L. Collins. Massachusetts has the lowest rate of road fatalities for miles driven, yet also ranks among the worst for wearing seat belts.

The data used by the Globe did not indicate whether the driver was at fault. A review of individual driving records and accident reports filed with local police departments indicates that some "bad" drivers were not always at fault.

Many of the driving records the Globe reviewed are filled with tickets for speeding and other moving violations, license suspensions, and arrests for offenses ranging from drug and alcohol issues to vehicular homicide.

William Snelbaker of Tewksbury, 43, has been in at least 14 accidents, dating back to 1988. He was found at fault in at least seven of the accidents and has been ticketed at least 18 times. His license was suspended again last year, and he is off the road. Through his mother, he declined to comment.

The costs for victims and their families can be devastating.

"I'm hurting. He was my whole world," said Carmella Lamaire, still mourning the loss of her 50-year-old husband, Robert J., who died in a motorcycle crash last year after he was allegedly cut off by a Brockton woman. The woman - whose name is being withheld by the Globe because she has a medical condition - faces vehicular homicide charges.

Without her husband's income, the 55-year-old Lamaire lost the Attleboro house they had bought in 1999.

"It was our first house after 30 years of living in apartments. For me, it was a dream . . . heaven," she said.

The reasons for the vast majority of accidents are no mystery, said state and public safety officials, insurance executives, and other observers: inexperience, aggressive driving, and carelessness. Insurance fraud, a major problem in past years, is not as much of a factor because of tougher enforcement.

Combine those factors with bad road designs in some cases and the state's traditionally miserable winter weather and it is a recipe for ensuring that the state's drivers will continue to deserve their reputation as among the worst in the nation, they said.

Strict enforcement of traffic laws would help cut accident totals dramatically, said some specialists. But traffic policies are inconsistent from community to community, as budget cuts have led to some communities curbing traffic enforcement.

Collins said more work needs to be done with the youngest drivers, such as toughening standards in driver education classes.

The courts already hold classes designed to jar motorists, especially young drivers, into realizing the huge responsibility they have when they get behind the wheel.

In Natick District Court, a class of about 40 mostly young traffic offenders recently watched in shocked silence as State Police Trooper Sean Reardon showed graphic videos of people dying or getting seriously injured in horrific car accidents. He talked grimly about notifying parents that their child was dead.

"The hardest thing I've ever had to do was stand outside of an apartment door at 5 in the morning, knowing we were going to change the lives of everyone inside sleeping peacefully," Reardon said.

At the end of the presentation, Jim Butcher, assistant chief of probation at Westborough District Court, talked about the death of Courtney, his 18-year-old daughter, in an accident caused by speeding earlier this year in Leicester. The driver and two others also died. A fifth person suffered brain damage.

Courtney died because the driver was an "idiot" who was showing off, he said. Think before you do something equally dumb, he said. Consider the consequences.

"I'm the one who is left behind," he told the silent class, choking up. "I'm the one who doesn't sleep at night. I find myself at her grave at 5 in the morning talking to her. . . . I'll never be able to walk her down the aisle, I'll never have grandchildren by her."

Globe Correspondent Alex I. Oster contributed to this report. Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story and graphic about Massachusetts automobile accidents in Sunday's City & Region section transposed figures for noontime and midnight. More traffic accidents occur at noontime than at midnight.

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