US says Mass. lags on measures to deter repeat drunken driving

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT State Registrar of Motor Vehicles Rachel Kaprielian said the Registry would review the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations. ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
State Registrar of Motor Vehicles Rachel Kaprielian said the Registry would review the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations.
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / November 17, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

Text size +

A federal agency criticized Massachusetts yesterday as one of the 10 states doing the least to combat repeat offenses of drunken driving.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Massachusetts has enacted only four of the 11 measures the safety agency believes are most effective at deterring the repeat offenders and heavy drinkers who cause the vast majority of alcohol-related automobile fatalities.

The federal safety board wants the state to call driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.15 percent — nearly twice the legal limit — an “aggravated’’ offense with stiffer penalties. And the board is urging the state to prevent alleged drunken drivers from plea-bargaining their charges down to lesser offenses, and to expand its powers to confiscate or immobilize vehicles belonging to repeat offenders.

Some state officials and lawmakers disputed the NTSB’s criticism, and some said they are leery of taking direction from a federal board on local traffic laws. But other lawmakers agreed that Massachusetts should do more, and said they would push to address the issue in the coming legislative session.

Massachusetts has among the lowest number of drunken driving deaths per capita and per mile driven in the country. But advocates for tougher laws say the low fatality rate is largely a result of congestion and population density that keep speeds in the state in check. The percentage of Massachusetts roadway fatalities attributed to impaired drivers — 32 percent last year and 33 percent in 2008 — is consistently a few points higher than the national average.

“I think everyone’s open to making the law stronger,’’ said state Senator Steven A. Baddour, a Methuen Democrat who serves as the Senate chairman on the Legislature’s transportation committee and vice chairman on the judiciary committee, each of which has a say in shaping the state’s drunken driving laws.

But Representative Eugene L. O’Flaherty, the House chairman on the judiciary committee, said lawmakers must be careful not to be overly swayed by emotional appeals on matters such as Operating Under the Influence laws, which he said can become “highly politicized.’’

“The challenge is always how do you make sure that public safety is being enhanced while at the same time making sure that case law and constitutional safeguards are also protected,’’ said O’Flaherty, a Chelsea Democrat.

In Washington yesterday, members of the NTSB staged a “Most Wanted’’ event to call attention to the 11 recommendations they have advocated since 2000. Since then, six states, including New Hampshire, have enacted at least eight, while 34 states boast five or more — while Massachusetts has lagged behind with four. Beacon Hill lawmakers expect to take a closer look next year at Melanie’s Law, a package of antidrunken-driving laws that passed five years ago. The legislation was named for a Marshfield 13-year-old, Melanie Powell, who was struck and killed by a repeat drunk driver in 2003.

Among other provisions, Melanie’s Law requires repeat offenders to buy and use ignition interlocks, devices drivers blow into that require a blood-alcohol content reading below 0.02 percent before their cars will start, for two years. The law also expanded the penalties for those caught operating under the influence with a suspended license; created penalties for those who knowingly let a suspended driver operate their vehicles; allowed prosecutors to seek forfeiture of vehicles owned by those convicted of four or more OUI offenses; and created automatic license suspensions for those who refuse breathalyzer tests.

In the year before Melanie’s Law was signed, Massachusetts police made 13,335 arrests for alleged driving under the influence, with 4,101 of those arrested having a prior conviction. Over the past year, the number arrested statewide for alleged operating under the influence was similar — 13,226 — but the number of those arrested who had a prior conviction had dropped to 3,463, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

Since the law passed, nearly 6,000 convicted drunk drivers have been required to install ignition interlocks for two years. Only 67 of the 2,999 drivers who have completed the lock requirement have been rearrested and convicted of drunken driving.

“Those statistics suggest that component is working,’’ said state Registrar of Motor Vehicles Rachel Kaprielian, who was a member of the Legislature when Melanie’s Law passed. She called the package “one of the country’s most restrictive.’’

But Kaprielian also said the Registry would review the NTSB’s recommendations.

Local advocates have sought additional measures, including requiring six-month ignition interlocks for first offenders, greater enforcement of automatic license suspensions for refusing breathalyzers, and an end to a loophole that allows “bundling,’’ in which drivers who face charges in multiple drunken driving cases can confront them together to their advantage.

“Melanie’s Law came a long way towards bringing us closer to the national norm, but this state has historically fought virtually anything that has come before the Legislature in terms of toughening drunk driving,’’ said Ron Bersani of Marshfield, Melanie Powell’s grandfather and a leading advocate for stronger laws.

State Senator Robert L. Hedlund, a Hingham Republican, worked with Bersani, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and other advocates to file the bill aimed at expanding Melanie’s Law that stalled last session. Some of those provisions were also rejected by lawmakers five years ago, a development Hedlund attributed to “intrigue and skullduggery,’’ particularly on the part of a group of legislators who also work as defense lawyers. Baddour and O’Flaherty said they do not believe the number of defense lawyers in the Legislature is a factor.

Hedlund said he believes the issue has gained momentum.

“I think all of a sudden we’ve got a little more renewed focus on it, so I’m hoping that brings some legislators around who’ve been obstinate,’’ Hedlund said.

Eric Moskowitz can be reached at