Q: How did you become STOP-DWI coordinator?
A: I was working for the Broome County Legislature and then in 2010 … I applied for the position and was hired by then-county Executive Barbara Fiala. I’d worked with Jim May, the previous STOP-DWI coordinator, on a few projects he was running and got a better understanding of what the program was. I was attracted to the position based off what he was doing with the events and working with all the different stakeholders in the community.
Q: You also have a military background.
A: I served in the Army National Guard for several years while I was in college and while employed with the county, both enlisted and as an officer. Several times with my employment in the county I’ve been called out to active duty, the longest time being in 2008 and 2009. I served in Afghanistan as a platoon leader with an infantry company based out of Ithaca. Originally, I entered to join to serve the country and honestly, for the benefits. That was prior to 9/11, and the Guard was more focused on state-side missions and had excellent college benefits. When I finished up my basic training, it was just before 9/11, which significantly changed the National Guard’s mission.
Q: So, what is your message about drinking and driving?
A: Our public awareness campaign is year-round, and we put it in places where people are going out to enjoy an event and drink alcohol. Our first message is always getting out to enjoy what the community has to offer, but always have a plan to get home safely. There should always be a sober driver getting behind the wheel … and once you’ve had a few drinks, it’s too late to make that plan. We’re not going to put our head in the sand and pretend people don’t drink, especially when it comes to younger drivers. The most important thing we can tell them is if they find themselves in a situation … they don’t get behind the wheel if they’re impaired or don’t get into a car with someone driving who is impaired.
Q: It seems like there are always people who will never get that message.
A: Alcohol is a drug that impairs your judgment and lowers your inhibitions. Our goal is to reduce the number of impaired driving crashes and fatalities. We’ve made significant progress over the years, but there are still too many drivers getting behind the wheel or using drugs. We’ve seen a significant decline in the number of tickets issued for impaired driving, but also a decrease in the number of crashes and fatalities. That’s our goal, to reduce them, but understand the very nature of consuming alcohol is going to lead people to make poor decisions.
Q: Do you think some people don’t realize they’re drunk until it’s too late?
A: A lot of people confuse tolerance with intoxication. You might have two people — same height, weight, gender — drink two drinks. One is falling over drunk, and one has no visible problems. But that’s tolerance. Intoxication is the alcohol’s effect on your body, and it affects everyone the same. There are variables in how quickly your blood alcohol content is going to rise or fall, based on if you had something to eat or are diluting it with water. Just because you’re able to drink six beers, speak clearly and walk a straight line, doesn’t mean your body isn’t impaired. The body’s reaction to alcohol consumption, clues police are looking for in field testing, are things you can’t control. Your body has smooth muscles that control say, your eyes, so even if you think you’re not impaired and can speak clearly, the clues in your eyes are present because it’s an involuntary movement you have no control over.
Q: What local STOP-DWI events help best send the message?
A: These events have been running for decades and have their own unique messages. The Chris Thater Memorial is a national-level outdoor event in August that focuses on the deadly consequences of impaired driving, specifically how dangerous drunk driving can be for pedestrians, cyclists and motorists themselves. The Holiday Classic focuses on underage drinking prevention and raises awareness in December, which happens to be the deadliest month of the year for alcohol and drug related crashes and fatalities.
One I started was the Returning Warrior 10 and 5-Miler, and I started that based on my experiences in Afghanistan and those of soldiers I served with. It focuses on unique driving challenges veterans face when they return from combat zones. When you think of excessive speed … yielding right of away … hyper-attention to the sides of the road and not actually the driving surface, quickly became a killer of veterans when they got home. We thought it was important to start an awareness event.
Q: Did you encounter that kind of driving challenge after Afghanistan?
A: I was a platoon leader, so I didn’t drive myself. We were a heavy weapons convoy escort security, so we drove all over the country back and forth for a year. My job was to make sure we weren’t hit. When I got home in early 2009, within two months I was involved in an accident driving through Owego, going under an overpass. I was looking at the overpass and didn’t notice the cars stopped in front me at the light. I was only going 25 or 30 mph, but it was raining out, I hit my brakes and slid into the car in front of me … and all of a sudden, I’m at fault for a three-car accident. I wasn’t ticketed, no one was injured, but that got me thinking. I was staring at the overpass, because that was essentially what I’d been doing for the past year.
Q: Shifting back to DWI, it seems local alcohol-related fatalities are down. What has helped that?
A: Over the years, we’ve slowly worked to change the culture around drinking and driving with strong enforcement, strong prosecution and effective education and treatment program. Those are really our pillars for how we reduce drunk driving crashes and fatalities.
Q: How has new legislation, like Leandra’s Law, helped the issue?
A: If you look at numbers, you’ll see a decline in the number of arrests that correlates to Leandra’s Law. The law requires installation of an ignition interlock device after a conviction and also increases the penalty for impaired driving with a child in the vehicle to a felony. If you talk to anyone who has had an IID installed or convicted of a felony for their first (DWI) offense, they’ll tell you it’s the one penalty that changed their behavior the most. Leandra’s Law was one of the biggest steps forward in the prevention of impaired driving since the STOP-DWI program started in the 1980s.
Q: Did that bring more responsibilities for enforcement?
A: We weren’t one of the first states to implement the ignition interlock requirement, but we’ve had success with it. One of the challenges with Leandra’s Law is coming up with the funding to properly monitor those who have the device installed. It takes a lot of time for a person to monitor every single time a person starts the car or blows into the device. You need someone monitoring that information … and getting that to the correct judges. In Broome County, the probation department monitors probation cases and the District Attorney’s Office monitors conditional discharge cases. There was increased responsibility to monitor and train law enforcement on what is required of drivers.
Q: Do you still see underage drinking as a problem among local teens?
A: It’s definitely a problem here and all over the country. But we’re seeing less teens using alcohol, and more teens using drugs that can impair your driving just as much as alcohol. We partner with state police and the traffic safety program to get to every high school once or twice a year to talk to the driving age population to talk about the dangers. Our goal is to keep them safe through the prom and graduation season into the summer. Ultimately, our goal is to create 20-somethings that aren’t into abusing alcohol or drugs. But here, we see 30 or 40 DWIs each year with drivers under the age of 20. We’ve been fortunate not to have any fatal crashes in the past few years with younger drivers during the prom/graduation season. But it’s something you can’t let up on.
Q: Your agency isn’t just targeting alcohol any more, is it?
A: We’re really focusing on drug use too, because in all age groups, there are issues with drugged driving. One of the biggest hurdles we have is that young drivers think a “D.D.” (designated driver) is someone who’s not drinking but can use marijuana or a painkiller and still drive. The THC levels in marijuana are very high compared to what they were 20 or 30 years ago. If they’re using synthetic marijuana or oils, the THC levels … can be just as impairing as chugging a six-pack of beer.
Q: What else do you tell people about penalties of impaired driving?
A: We estimate the fines, fees and surcharges can add up to $10,000 for a first-time offense — and that is assuming a fairly inexpensive defense attorney. The ignition interlock requirement is for any vehicle you own or have access to. That means anyone who drives that car has to use the device. But for the most part, people are aware of the consequences. What I don’t think people understand are the amount of resources law enforcement put into detecting impaired drivers.
Local police spend thousands of hours on sobriety checkpoints and patrols, and we have drug recognition experts that identify drug use in drivers that show signs of impairment, without alcohol being present. When we talk deterrents, every age group reacts differently. We take different approaches and send a general message about all the consequences — the costliest being, someone’s life.