Retired Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police
Col. Culhane delivered the following remarks Oct. 7, 2022 at the Crowne Plaza after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from Mothers …
Retired Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police
Col. Culhane delivered the following remarks Oct. 7, 2022 at the Crowne Plaza after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from Mothers Against Drunk Rhode Island at the annual recognizing heroes in our community awards breakfast. Col Culhane assumed command of the State Police in September 1990. He retired in October 2001.
Good morning and thank you for breakfast. It is my favorite meal.
According to the NHTSA (National Traffic Safety Administration), everyday about 28 people in the US die in drunk driving crashes – that’s one person every 52 minutes or one person while we were eating our breakfast.
And also, thank you for the recognition you have given me this morning, but I dare say it is grossly misdirected. It really belongs to those few and brave women and men police officers who go the extra mile to enforce Rhode Island DUI statutes.
According to NHTSA, almost 43,000 people died in crashes in 2020. 11,654 were alcohol related. That, according to NHTSA, is about 30% of all US traffic deaths and a 14% increase over 2019. Early estimates show fatalities increasing in the first half of this year.
A DUI arrest is not like a speeding ticket or stop sign violation where contact with the motorist begins and ends at the side of the highway.
It involves testing - usually twice - custody and transport back to the police station and then oft time confrontation with the offenders’ family. And if the arrest is contested, there are hearings and eventually a trial which can be stressful for all involved.
But it is still easier than when I was a young Trooper (back in the early 1960s). Then, intoxication was at .15 and impaired driving was at .10. There was no breathalyzer. The offending motorist had to consent to having blood samples drawn by a nurse or doctors or provide two urine samples 20 minutes apart. Sadly, the stigma of an annoying and time-consuming arrest sometimes persists today. Oft supervisors “discouraged” such arrests as it took a patrol off the highway for an extended period of time.
But I must ask our current police officers, what would you rather do?
Remove drunks from your roads or deliver that awful knock on the door in the early morning hours that every parent and spouse dreads.
I noted from my review of NHTSA statists that in 2020 RI is 40th in the ranking of states for DUI fatalities. It was 45th in 2019. A -41.20% decrease from 2019 to 2020. It was the largest decrease in the U.S.
Well done Rhode Island!
Such an accomplishment requires teamwork from all involved. However, RI still has a way to go:
In 2021 there were 45 operators killed on your highways. 15 of those operators were .08 or higher (30%). In 14 of those fatalities, speed was an additional factor, as was lack of seat belt use.
I remember attending a highway safety conference decades ago and listening to Mary Ellen Amoni. The administrator of NHTSA, at the time, saying that highway safety is a three-legged stool. Without the three legs working together at the same time the stool cannot stand or fulfill its purpose. She said those three legs were Engineering, Education, and Enforcement. All three have a special and unique function.
We depend on engineering to design and build safe roads using their sophisticated bucket of skills, and RI DOT does just that.
And I would posit, that if Mary Ellen were speaking this morning, she would expand that definition of engineering to encompass technology.
Our vehicles today are loaded with distracting technology, texting, movies, books, and of course cell phones. There needs to be a way to allow us to use this new technology but to use it safely. I believe they have developed an automobile that will impede cell signals, making phones inoperable, to all but 911 calls. But will the public accept it?
NTSB, which has no regulatory authority, is urging NHTSA to require auto manufacturers to equip cars with passive blood alcohol monitoring systems. It could be effective as soon as three years from now.
But will the motoring public accept this?
But there is an even greater challenge ahead for the three legs of the stool:
That is the legalization of recreational cannabis. It was tax revenue over common sense. And now highway safety folks must live with and deal with its consequences. Outcomes we have really yet to realize because the lawmakers and policy makers have yet to figure out how to make it work. The real burden will fall upon our law enforcement professionals. Right now, there are tests, such as breathalyzer, for alcohol intoxication, but none for cannabis.
Driving buzzed will become all too common and there is no roadside test, like the alchosensor, developed for cannabis impairment. It will be up to the individual officer’s judgement to determine impairment. It will be very subjective and subject to challenge. Drug recognition trained officers are relatively few.
In time, I am sure science will develop a test, just as it did when we went from the days of blood and urine sampling for DUI, but in the meantime, how much damage will be done, how many limbs sacrificed and how many lives lost and families wrecked must RI endure?
MADD, DOT, AAA Northeast, and law enforcement must all do their part regarding the education leg of the NHTS stool. They have done and currently do it very well. Just witness the significant drop in fatalities from 2019 to 2020. Their constant programs, PSAs and campaigns serve to keep the danger of drinking and driving in the public eye and mindset. Yet there are still opportunities.
But, in the final analysis, it is the patrol officer who brings the whole effort to fruition. It is the officer who must be extra alert and vigilant to spot and stop the impaired driver. It is the officer who must make that decision to go beyond the ticket and bring to bear on the motorist and themselves the extra burdens of a DUI enforcement action. Today everything an officer does seems to be on tape or camera. That can work to advantage the arrest or cause it to fail later in the process.
The stress on the officer is significant.
In closing, I commend all of the holders of the stool’s legs for your accomplishments and urge you to continue what you are doing. And I also urge you to continue to support and reward your dedicated police officers with the recognition they deserve for their effort to make RI’s roads safer. A DUI arrest should rank right up there with a weapon arrest, for the consequences of the violations are the same- sadness, injury, or death.
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