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Busted

State and local police clamp down on drunk drivers in some communities, but others show a drop-off in arrests

By Matt Carroll
Globe Staff / February 8, 2009
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As 18-year-old Sean Carlson threw the car into reverse in a Whitman parking spot, Anthony Stone was outside the car, clinging to the passenger's side door. But Stone slipped off and his left side was run over by Carlson. Stone sustained serious injuries and was flown by helicopter to a hospital.

Carlson blew a 0.082 on a breathalyzer at the scene, well above the legal limit of 0.02 percent for drivers under age 21, and could not touch the tip of his nose in five attempts, according to the police report. Asked if he knew the other 18-year-old was hanging on the side of his car, Carlson said he did, "but it all happened so fast."

The Roslindale teen was charged with several offenses, including operating under the influence of alcohol with a serious injury resulting.

The arrest, which happened last May and is wending its way through Brockton District Court, is one alleged example of driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol that is repeated thousands of times a year across the state. Despite decades of campaigns warning drivers not to drive impaired, they continue to do so.

But even though drunk drivers haven't gone away, new statistics indicate a greater commitment to clamp down on the problem.

Arrests are up statewide. More than 16,000 people were arrested last year, an increase of nearly 5 percent from 2007, according to the Registry of Motor Vehicles. That includes people who failed a breathalyzer test and those who refused to take it.

"People aren't looking the other way anymore," said Mary McNamara, executive director for the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who credited the State Police and local departments with aggressively going after drunk drivers.

"The roads are not totally safe yet, but we are headed in the right direction," she said. "There are more officers on the highways and the chances are better than ever that [drunk drivers] will get stopped and arrested."

Drunk drivers face laws that have become increasingly tougher over the years, as the public has become more outraged and less tolerant of the carnage on the roads left by impaired drivers. For instance, "Melanie's Law, passed in 2005, toughened the penalties for repeat offenders.

Last year, 4,308 of those arrested, or more than one-quarter of the total, had at least one prior conviction, compared with 4,196 the previous year. The number of drivers with four or more prior convictions declined to 186 from 239.

At the local level, the number of drunk-driving arrests each year varies widely across communities.

Arrests last year jumped substantially in communities such as Scituate, Brockton, and Pembroke, where the increases were at least 40 percent. But in Whitman, Middleborough, and Halifax, arrests dropped by 40 percent or more. (Arrests include those by local officers and State Police.)

Several factors play into whether arrests are climbing or dropping, said police officers and victim advocates. A key issue is resources - manpower and money - which give communities flexibility to go after drunk drivers. Some departments had spikes in arrests when they worked with the State Police in setting up roadblocks, but then saw arrests drop the following year when there was no roadblock.

Other factors include the age of the force - younger officers tend to be more aggressive, some chiefs said. One speculated that the sagging economy might have played a role, as people worried about their jobs or finances have one too many drinks to ease the stress.

Ron Bersani, the grandfather who pushed the passage of Melanie's Law, worried that as the economy worsened, more drunks might take to the road.

"When times are bad, people probably drink more," said the Marshfield man, whose granddaughter was killed by a repeat drunk driver in 2003. Officers on the street are doing a good job, but "resources for police are going down," he noted, pointing to cuts in local aid for municipalities, which will hurt efforts to arrest more drivers.

A member of MADD, he favors a bill that would require first-time offenders to use an interlock device, which prevents a car from starting until the driver blows into the device and passes a blood-alcohol test.

Bersani also would like to see a greater emphasis on cultural change, similar to the shift against cigarette smoking over the past few decades. Fewer teens now take up smoking because they've been warned so often about its dangers.

On the South Shore, Scituate's 58 percent increase in arrests last year was the area's largest. That went along with a lot more traffic tickets issued, said Chief Brian Stewart.

"Part of it is we have younger guys and they typically are a lot more aggressive," he added. The department, using state grants, also ran eight four-hour blocks of aggressive traffic enforcement.

"Not that we don't do a lot of enforcement anyway, but it is helpful," he said.

Arrests can be viewed in another way, too - the number of arrests as a proportion of the population of the town. Under this method, West Bridgewater has more arrests per capita than any other community in the state.

Chief Donald Clark said it's a combination of busy roads - routes 28, 106, and 24 - and aggressive, well-trained officers.

Special circumstances can also come into play. One night late last summer, the department set up a roadblock near Route 24 and netted 13 arrests, more than expected. The reason became clear when they saw what many of the drivers were wearing: Patriots jerseys. It turned out the trap had been set up on the night of a Pats game.

In other communities, arrests declined last year.

In Canton, for example, arrests dropped to 56 from 79 in 2007. Police Chief Kenneth Berkowitz said that the department had one fewer state grant last year, which meant fewer hours devoted to saturating roads like Route 138 looking for inebriated drivers.

Last year's decline also reflected a spike of arrests in 2007 caused by a successful roadblock done with the State Police. About 15 people were arrested in one day, he said.

Sometimes, just one police officer can make a big difference.

The biggest drop in the region was the 46 percent decline in Halifax, where arrests fell to 35 from 65. The reason was that the overnight officer left unexpectedly in the middle of the year, said Sergeant Ted Broderick, and the shift was filled by others whose routines weren't as effective as the departing officer's.

Matt Carroll can be reached at mcarroll@globe.com.

Local arrest records

The percentage increase or decrease in drunken driving arrests in area communities between 2007 and 2008

Statewide numbers

Number of drunken driving convictions

in Massachusetts from 2006 through 2008

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