Wednesday, August 19, 2015


Original Story:

It is a superlative that Suffolk County officials are not bragging about: Every year since at least 2001 the county has recorded more crashes involving alcohol than any other county in New York. Also: More people have died in alcohol-related crashes in Suffolk during that time than anywhere else in the state. A Long Island DUI lawyer represents clients charged with intoxicated driving.

Nassau County has followed in second place in both categories in many of those years, helping to give Long Island a reputation as the drunken-driving capital of New York.

That status seemed to be reaffirmed last weekend when a pickup truck slammed into a limousine carrying eight young women in Suffolk County, killing four and critically injuring two. The driver of the pickup truck was charged with driving while intoxicated. The investigation into the crash continued on Friday, as the region’s restaurants and bars prepared for another busy summer weekend, people planned barbecues and picnics and law enforcement agencies stepped up their vigilance for drunken drivers. An Albany DUI lawyer is reviewing the details of this case.

Long Island officials acknowledge the gravity of drunken driving. Yet in interviews this week, they also cautioned against oversimplifying complex crash data, saying that the absolute number of alcohol-related crashes is an incomplete and misleading yardstick when comparing counties and measuring progress in dealing with the problem.

Both Suffolk and Nassau have large populations that are dependent on their cars — unlike, say, the residents of New York City, who have an extensive public transportation system at their disposal. Therefore, while the populations of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens are each much larger than those in Long Island’s two counties, a resident of Long Island is more likely to get behind the wheel of a car than is a resident of New York City, officials said.

In addition, Suffolk is threaded with rural roads on which average driving speeds climb higher than on the congested streets of cities, raising the likelihood of a crash resulting in fatalities, officials said. The law was further strengthened in 2013. A Westchester County criminal defense lawyer is following this story closely.

According to federal statistics, 53 percent of all fatal traffic crashes in the United States in 2013 occurred in rural areas.

While Suffolk and Nassau have generally led the state in alcohol-related crashes, alcohol-related fatal crashes and the number of people killed in those crashes, they drop down the list when the number of those crashes is measured against other factors, such as population size, number of registered vehicles or number of licensed drivers.

“I’m not trying to minimize what happens here,” said Christopher Mistron, coordinator for Nassau’s Stop D.W.I. program. “However, when you take into consideration the number of vehicles on the roadway, the number of drivers and our population, we are actually doing a yeoman’s job in trying to battle D.W.I. incidences.”

The fatal crash last weekend came at the time of year when the populations of Nassau and Suffolk, particularly on the weekends, balloon with visitors.

In a news conference on Friday, Suffolk officials said that a test of blood taken from the driver of the pickup truck about an hour and 40 minutes after the crash found that he had a blood-alcohol content of .066 — below the legal standard for intoxication, which is at or above .08. A Bedford DUI lawyer provides aggressive legal representation in drunken driving cases.

“Standing alone, this number is below the legal standard for a charge of driving while intoxicated,” Thomas J. Spota, the Suffolk County district attorney, told reporters in Riverhead, N.Y. “However, the inquiry does not end there.”

Before he would consider reducing the charges, Mr. Spota said, there were unanswered issues that needed to be resolved, including whether the pickup truck driver, Steven Romeo, was on drugs or using his cellphone at the time of the incident. Investigators also have not spoken to the survivors who were in the limousine, and Mr. Spota said it was crucial that investigators knew more about the speed of the vehicles.

“We have a very emerging picture,” he said. “But it is not a complete picture.”

New York State has gradually tightened its penalties for drunken driving. In 1981, the State Legislature enacted the Stop D.W.I. law, which stiffened penalties for drunken driving and required that every county have an anti-drunken driving program funded by revenues from drunken-driving fines.

New York was also one of the first states to make it an automatic felony to drive drunk with a child in the vehicle on the first offense. The law, known as Leandra’s Law and passed in 2009, also required that all convicted drivers use an ignition interlock device that prevents them from driving their cars if they are drunk.

At the same time, law enforcement agencies around the state have been constantly adjusting and fine-tuning their approach to the problem.

Suffolk County, for instance, now deploys a team of police officers five nights a week to conduct so-called saturation patrols in drunken-driving hot spots. In addition, a special interagency task force does saturation patrols on Long Island’s East End, especially during the summer.

Improvements in car designs, the wider use of seatbelts and the impact of public awareness campaigns have further helped to address the problem in the state as in the rest of the country.

“Kids today get it,” said Richard Finn, Suffolk’s Stop D.W.I. program coordinator. “I’m a creature of the ’60s and ’70s. When I was a kid, D.W.I. wasn’t a big deal.” The authorities’ response to drunken driving at the time was far more cavalier, he recalled. If caught drinking and driving, “a cop would take your keys out of the ignition and throw them in the woods.”

In 2013, Suffolk had 853 alcohol-related crashes — more than 10 percent of the state’s total — of which 51, or 14 percent of the statewide total, were fatal, according to state data. During the same year, Nassau had 548 alcohol-related crashes, of which 26 resulted in a fatality.

By comparison, in 2007, there were 1,024 alcohol-related crashes in Suffolk and 699 in Nassau, grim high-water marks in the past decade. (All of these episodes did not necessarily involve a driver who had been drinking: In collating “alcohol-related crashes,” the state also includes bicyclists and pedestrians who have been drinking and were involved in collisions.)

In March, Mr. Finn said, Suffolk had no drunken-driving fatalities, the first time in about three decades that a month had gone by without a fatal alcohol-related crash on the county’s roadways.

In Nassau, the authorities are now making half as many drunken-driving arrests as they did 20 years ago, Mr. Mistron said. “In 1995, we made upwards of 6,000 D.W.I. arrests in Nassau,” he said. “Now, it’s below 3,000.”

But while alcohol-related crash statistics on Long Island and throughout New York have improved in the past two decades, even as the population has increased, there is still a tremendous amount of work to be done, say officials and activists, who assert that even one drunken-driving death a year is one too many.

“Drunk driving is 100 percent preventable,” said Colleen Sheehey-Church, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The volume of crashes, she said, is “still ridiculous.”

The challenges of policing the problem were evident late one night this week during a ride-along with the special patrol of the Suffolk County Police Department.

Seven patrol cars — six officers and their supervisor, Sgt. Patrick Detwiler — deployed to Smithtown in western Suffolk to search for drunken drivers. It was an exercise in patience and alertness, as the officers crisscrossed the town, looking for vehicles behaving aberrantly: weaving, driving with the headlights off, abruptly changing speeds or moving unusually slow or unusually fast.

It was a Wednesday night and traffic was well off the weekend peak, but there was still some life in the town’s bars and restaurants and the promise that someone was deep into their drink and bound to make a bad decision.

After a few largely uneventful hours — the officers made a couple of traffic stops but the drivers turned out to be fine — the team made its first arrest. Early Thursday morning, Officer Roger Kleber pulled over a Jeep S.U.V. that had tailgated another car, failed to signal on a turn and driven about 50 miles per hour in a 30 mile-per-hour zone.

The driver was slurring his words; there were half-empty liquor bottles in the car.

Officer Kleber began to tell the driver about the breath alcohol test he was going to administer.

“No, no,” the driver interrupted, his voice mushy. “I know how to do it.” He blew into the testing mechanism.

“Do you know what the legal limit is in New York?” Officer Kleber asked.

“I definitely failed,” the driver declared. He had already been convicted once of driving while intoxicated. The meter read .18 blood alcohol content, well over the legal limit. Seconds later, he was in handcuffs and slumped, droopy-eyed, in the back seat of Officer Kleber’s cruiser.

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