While most people associate DWI checkpoints with holidays like New Year’s Eve and Fourth of July, efforts to curb drunk driving take place all year long.
In 1978, the first citizen anti-DWI group, Remove Intoxicate Drivers, or RID, was established in Schenectady. The first Stop-DWI legislation was passed in 1981 and Columbia County was among the counties to set up local programs to combat the problem with a county STOP-DWI coordinator in 1982.
The county’s current coordinator is Reginald Crowley.
“What that (legislation) basically said was that all the fines from DWIs and related charges come back to the counties that set up DWI programs and that fine money is used for education, enforcement and prosecution,” he explained.
Crowley took over the program in November 2013 after 15 years as a Columbia County deputy sheriff and 14 years as town judge and four years as town supervisor in Copake.
Driving while intoxicated is an unclassified misdemeanor in New York state, as is the related driving with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent or higher. Additional DWI arrests raise the fine to felony status, as do other criteria.
For instance, under Vince’s Law, getting a third DWI conviction in 15 years is a class D felony that carries up to a $10,000 fine and up to seven years in prison. Under Leandra’s Law, passed in 2009, driving drunk with a child age 15 or younger is elevated to a felony.
“There’s no excuse for ignorance now,” Crowley said. “Thirty years ago, DWI was not a major issue. I remember when I was in high school if you were caught drinking and driving, it was maybe a small fine and you lost your license for a couple of months and that was the end of it. But now it’s a major issue.”
The New York State DWI Association and the New York State DWI Foundation distribute state grants to Stop-DWI programs across the state.
“This money is for extra patrols strictly for DWIs,” Crowley said. “They can either put patrols out or DWI checkpoints. The departments can work together. Theoretically, Hudson and Greenport could have a checkpoint at the Greenport line or together with the Sheriff’s Office. It’s up to the departments.”
The additional DWI patrols are held during holiday periods. For instance, for the Fourth of July holiday, patrols were held July 3-6.
Funding was also used to recently supply a camera for a Sheriff’s Office traffic safety vehicle and equipment for the probation department’s DWI enforcement.
“This is thousands of dollars worth of expenditures that the taxpayers don’t have to pay for,” noted Crowley.
The current grant cycle started on Halloween 2014 and ends Labor Day; a new grant funding cycle begins next year, if approved. The current grant funds DWI programs through the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office and the Hudson and Greenport Police departments.
Despite efforts, there have still been alcohol-related vehicle fatalities in recent years. In 1999, there were no fatalities, but in 2000, there were five, according to the Governor’s Traffic Safety Council. There were five again in 2004, but the number has varied greatly since then, with two fatalities recorded for 2012 and 2013.
DWI arrests peaked in 2010, with 461 recorded in the county. There were 222 in 2012 and 232 in 2013.
Funding also goes to the district attorney for DWI prosecution and the probation department for overseeing DWI convictees. Students Against Destructive Decisions chapters in the county’s school districts also get funding for things such as safety billboards during prom season.
One of the most effective programs for deterring DWIs is the county’s victim impact panels, which requires DWI convictees to hear testimony from victims whose lives have been impacted by drunk driving. They are held four times a year but may be held more frequently next year due to high enrollment, Crowley said. Money raised from the mandatory fee to attend the panels goes toward DWI training for local law enforcement.
The purpose is to try to make offenders understand that getting a DWI or getting into an accident and killing somebody affects not just them, but their family and friends, as well as people they don’t even know.
“We have a man whose family was hit head-on by a drunk driver and he lost his wife and both of his children,” Crowley said. “Another speaker actually came to our first victim impact panel and it made such an impression on him that he asked to speak. He’s a recovering alcoholic.”
Getting people to attend the panels can be a challenge in itself, Crowley said. Those who skip the panels they are ordered to attend by judges get court summonses to attend from the District Attorney’s Office. Some convictees have even showed up at the impact panel impaired and were forced to leave and come back for another one, he said.
“Some of them are hardcore alcoholics and some have a problem where they just can’t go out without drinking and then some just have too many glasses of wine at the Christmas party or whatever, but the rest of the year they hardly drink at all,” Crowley said.
For the average DWI, by the time all is said and done, with attorney’s fees, Crowley said it could cost that person $10,000. In addition, the New York state Department of Motor Vehicles will require a surcharge, insurance carriers will raise insurance rates, the offender’s car will be towed, plus they will have to attend a DWI safety course and the victim impact panel, which costs $75.
The fight against drunk driving has also been brought into the 21st century. The New York State DWI Association has created an app for smart phones, called “Have A Plan,” which can be downloaded for free on IOS, Android and Windows-based smartphones.
The app allows users to find cab services wherever they are, as well as set up a list of contacts to call if they are too drunk to drive. The user can check to see how much alcohol causes impairment for someone of their weight or even report a DWI if they see one occurring.
“I tell people free is better than paying $10,000 in fines,” Crowley said.
To reach reporter Arthur Cusano, call 518-828-1616, ext. 2499 or email email@example.com.
Safety Day held at Taconic Hills High School on May 15th. There were safety demonstrations all day for the students. In addition to STOP-DWI agencies assisting during the day long event were Columbia County 911, Columbia County Sheriff's Office, Craryville and Mellenville Fire Depts. and Comunity Rescue.
A very special thanks goes to Sheriff David Bartlett and also to Ed Bergstraesser from AT&Tfor providing the texting and driving simulator.
Through joint cooperation of Columbia County’s STOP-DWI Program, District Attorney’s Office, Probation, Sheriff’s Office and Hudson Police Department, drinking and driving Victim Impact Panels will be returning to Columbia County starting this fall.
Victim Impact Panels (VIPs) have proven to be a valuable tool in reducing the number of repeat DWI offenders. Offenders will be required to pay a fee to attend the panel and speakers are all volunteers, thus the panels are self funding and there is no cost to the taxpayers. The speakers, who are all victims of DWI, share the impact that drinking and driving has had on them and their families.
The goal of the VIP is to make the offenders aware that drinking and driving doesn’t just affect the person that is arrested. It’s effects are far more reaching, negatively affecting the families and friends of both offenders and victims, as well as endangering the entire driving public.
Columbia County STOP-DWI, Sheriff Bartlett, Probation Director Kibler, and District Attorney Czajka are committed to partnering with Hudson Police and other County and local agencies to make our highways safer and more enjoyable for all the residents and visitors of Columbia County.