The number of drunken driving cases filed in the Island’s district court has dropped significantly over the past few years, even outpacing a statewide downward trend.
According to figures obtained from the state Office of the Commissioner of Probation, drunken driving arraignments in Edgartown district court last year fell nearly 24 per cent — to 126 arraignments — from the previous year, and 38 per cent since 2008.
Several island law enforcement officials say the numbers translate to safer roads and fewer intoxicated drivers weaving on the lighted streets of down-Island towns and on the dark, serpentine roads up-Island.
“And that’s basically because of enforcement,” said West Tisbury police chief Daniel Rossi. “More and more motorists are getting smarter. The enforcement has worked.”
But in Oak Bluffs, where police handle a large percentage of the Island’s drunken driving arrests, enforcement has been affected by deep cuts to its force of summertime special police officers. The town used to have a dozen or more, and now it’s down to three, said Police Lieut. Timothy Williamson.
That requires regular officers to be pulled off road patrols to fill the vacuum on waterfront and Circuit avenue patrols, as hundreds of people spill out of bars and restaurants on any given summer evening, he said.
“It’s risk management, and you put your people where the problems are,” said Lieutenant Williamson, who also attributed the decline to public awareness about stiffer drunken driving penalties and smarter behavior.
Arrests in Oak Bluffs dropped from 95 in 2008 to 40 last year, according to police department records. (Thus far in 2011, 41 drunken driving arrests have been made within town limits, Lieutenant Williamson said.)
Tom Bennett, who heads the Island Counseling Center at Martha’s Vineyard Community Services, said during tough economic times, more families are under stress and turn to alcohol. Yet his program is receiving fewer referrals from the district court for alcohol education.
If the economic downturn persists, some other town services may be cut back, including drunken driving enforcement by their police departments, Mr. Bennett said.
“One of the results of cutbacks means leaving more people out there under pressure, drinking more and perhaps driving when they shouldn’t,” he said.
Speaking generally about the safety net for Islanders, he said: “We are all bracing for things getting worse.”
The district court arraignment figures were compiled by the state office in Boston, after Edgartown chief probation officer John H. Mezzetti indicated in an interview that drunken driving cases have been dropping.
The state results show that Edgartown arraignments peaked at 204 in calendar year 2008, and declined in the following two years, to 165 in 2009 and 126 in 2010. No figures were available for 2011.
By comparison, statewide numbers also peaked in 2008, at 19,381, and have declined to 17,310 in 2009 and to 16,200 last year. That’s a 16 per cent decline since 2008.
District courts on the Cape experienced similar declines from 2008 to 2010: Barnstable dropped from 437 arraignments to 334; Falmouth, 276 to 212; Orleans, from 345 to 250.
And Nantucket had the most dramatic drop, from 121 arraignments in 2007 to 48 last year.
A drunken driving conviction can be costly, and not just financially, if there are additional dimensions such as injury and job loss, which increase pressures on families already under stress.
Under the law, if motorists refuse a Breathalyzer test, they lose their license for six months. If a driver agrees to take the test and fails, loss of license lasts at least 45 days.
A first-time offender who is placed on probation for a year typically faces $1,365 in probation services fees, about $600 in additional court costs and perhaps another $500 to $600 for an alcohol education course. That doesn’t include the cost of a lawyer, if one isn’t appointed by the court. The penalties only increase for subsequent offenses, including the prospect of a jail term.
“Just the fact that when you get arrested, the penalties have become stiffer,” said Chief Rossi, of West Tisbury. “Maybe people are just saying it’s not worth it.”
Some see a growing culture of awareness, assisted by public education programs, that driving while drunk just isn’t very smart. For example, the high school’s health courses include some discussion about drunken driving, police said.
“I think [you see] heightened awareness, particularly among young people who have expressed a concern about driving drunk,” said Laura Marshard, an assistant district attorney on the Island.
Add the perception that everyone knows everyone here, and that police are aware of the reputations and vehicles of troublesome drivers.
“It’s a small Island. You have an increased police presence,” and their knowledge of drivers, said Ms. Marshard. “That familiarity results in appropriate vigilance.”
The numbers from the state office were not broken down by town. But police officials in Edgartown, West Tisbury, Chilmark and Vineyard Haven said their personnel levels and vigilance on the roads have not wavered in recent years.
Vineyard Haven police chief Dan Hanavan, for example, said his staffing level has been about the same for the past 10 years.
“We don’t change enforcement,” said Chilmark police chief Chief Brian Cioffi. “We have zero tolerance.”
Police also said they’ve witnessed a phenomenon, especially in summer months, that suggests people are getting smarter about getting behind the wheel after drinking.
“When a bar closes, we don’t have enough cabs to go around,” said Sgt. Kenneth Johnson of Edgartown.
Lieutenant Williamson of Oak Bluffs agreed. “The cab stands seem to be packed, and people are taking the VTA (Vineyard Transit Authority),” he said.