It seems every few weeks we hear another heartbreaking story about how a drunk driver has taken the life of an innocent victim in our area. These sad tales have touched so many members of our community, from the teenagers in Cicero to the WSYR family and their loyal listeners. Sadder still is that each of these recent tragedies was avoidable.
The accidents here and others across the state have refocused the legislative light on what we can do to improve DWI laws -- with a special emphasis on repeat offenders and the protection of underage passengers.
In the past few weeks the Senate Standing Committee on Transportation, of which I am a member, has reported a total seven bills out of committee that deal directly with DWI laws, sending these bills to the full senate for further consideration. These measure include one bill that would increase penalties when a minor is a passenger, another bill that would lengthen license suspension for second DWI offenses, and a third that adds teeth to license suspension laws by redefining "aggravated unlicensed operation of a motor vehicle" to include more offenses.
As we consider these legislative solutions, I think it is also important to remember how in the past we have made progress against impaired driving. Since 1981, New York has cut drunk driving fatalities in half -- from 1,107 in 1981 to 334 in 2000.
The success in New York is due in large part to the county-based effort of the state’s STOP-DWI program. This program, which began in 1981, uses locally generated fines to fund a comprehensive approach to prevent drunk driving. The collaborative effort teams law enforcement officials with local district attorneys and other county-based officials to enforce strong laws, raise public awareness, and, when necessary, provide alcohol counseling. New York’s STOP-DWI program is so strong that it has served as a model for other programs across the country.
I was recently honored to be the guest speaker at the Madison County STOP-DWI annual gathering, where the county program honors law enforcement officers for their work against DWI.
As I told the officers at that event, despite the success of the program since its inception, accident numbers have started to creep back up across the state in recent years. In 2004, there were 494 fatalities where a driver had over the legal limit of .08.
And we have to always remember that all these statistics fail to adequately describe the tragedies that have occurred on a personal level with so many losing loved ones to the carelessness of a drunk driver. In recent years, there has been no shortage of this kind of tragedy.
That is why it is important that the bills we moved out of the Transportation Committee pass the full Senate and then see action in the Assembly. The law enforcement officers that I met with last week and the prosecutors who bring charges need these stronger sanctions at their disposal. And most importantly, each and every one of us in Central New York need these stronger laws to prevent drunk driving and to protect our families.