Police recently charged Rhode Island Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio with drunk driving. The police arrested and charged Ruggerio after a 911 call reported that he had been driving erratically. However, the charges were dropped just a week later, after Ruggerio admitted that he refused to submit to a Breathalyzer test. He received a six-month suspension of his driver’s license as punishment.
The fact that a high-ranking state representative had such a highly publicized incident with alcohol highlights some of the problems with drunk driving in Rhode Island. Many in the local media say that it reflects poorly on the state when a person charged with representing its citizens sets such a bad example. Others feel that there is an accepted culture of drunk driving in the state and a relatively relaxed attitude toward this dangerous behavior.
Local advocates for tougher drunk driving laws are using incidents like this to call for a change in the punishment of drunk driving offenders by increasing fines and driver’s license suspensions. They also seek the implementation of preventative technology like ignition interlock devices. An ignition interlock device works like a breathalyzer attached to the car. Drivers blow into the device, which prevents them from starting a vehicle if they are above the legal limit. The interlock devices also require drivers to pull over at random times and blow to determine whether they were drinking after starting the car.
Proponents of interlock devices argue that they have helped other states reduce the number of drunk driving accidents. They also may change the behavior of offenders, according to some experts.
In the coming weeks, advocates for change in the drunk driving laws plan to propose legislation that will support a statewide implementation of ignition interlock devices. While the proposed law would have meant a shorter license suspension in Ruggerio’s case — three months instead of six — it would have required him to start his car using an ignition interlock device for an additional six months after reinstatement of his driver’s license.
Though in recent years it has been difficult to initiate real change in the Rhode Island legislature regarding drunk driving, it is the sincere hope of many that the more this issue is discussed, the more pressure lawmakers will feel. Those who are pushing for change feel that there is a real cost, both economically and in the number of Rhode Island residents’ lives lost, which is too vast and too important to ignore. If anything good is to come of the Ruggerio incident, it is that perhaps a high-profile arrest will not only lead to real change in the drunk driving laws, but also influence the culture and adjust what is considered acceptable behavior.