The long fight to end DWI’s destruction continues on Long Island

Mothers Against Drunk Driving continues to push for interlock devices to prevent repeat DWI offenders from getting behind the wheel of a vehicle. To unlock the device, a driver must blow into it. If alcohol is detected on the breath, the steering wheel remains locked. Above, a MADD pin at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. // Image via Wikimedia Commons

By Urvi Gandhi

Editor’s note: The following is part three in a series.

In the summer of 1990, Marge Lee was being driven by her 25-year-old son Kenney and her two other young children from New Jersey to Long Island when a drunken driver crashed into their car. Kenney died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.

Lee sustained severe injuries from the crash, the effects of which she continues to live with today. She is missing two feet of her intestine that had to be removed surgically; her Achilles tendon was severed; and she sustained a traumatic brain injury.

In the three decades since, Lee has dedicated her life to preventing drunken and impaired driving on Long Island and advocating for DWI victims. She began “Dedicated,” an organization whose goal is stopping drunken and impaired driving and advocating for victims.

“I just texted two victims who lost their children and wished them a peaceful Mother’s Day. I can’t wish them a happy Mother’s Day,” Lee said.

Drunken and impaired driving continues to present a major problem for Long Islanders. According to data from the Institute For Traffic Safety Management & Research, a university-based center in Albany, 763 people died on Long Island in DWI crashes from 2011 to 2021. More than 9,600 more sustained major and minor injuries.

Dr. Jennifer Duffy, a Long Island-based clinical psychologist, routinely evaluates individuals charged with DWIs for their legal proceedings, and if deemed necessary, provides them with counseling and therapy afterwards.

“It’s a 50-50 split between those who have serious problems with alcohol and substances and drivers who might be in a situation where they are unprepared when they go for a night out and their inhibitions are lowered when they get behind the wheel,” Duffy said.

According to her, one of the contributing factors for higher DWIs is the changing of the legal Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) limit over time. In the 1990s, the BAC limit in New York State was dropped from 0.15 to 0.08.

“That legal cutoff for DWIs is not based on a strict science. It’s not like people become impaired and unable to operate their motor vehicles right as they reach 0.08 BAC. Most people are unaware how easy it is to reach that number,” Duffy said.

Penalties for drunken and impaired driving in New York State can range from a $150 fine to a seven-year prison sentence, depending on the severity of the crime and/or repeat offenses.

Drunken driving “is a 50-50 split between those who have serious problems with alcohol and substances and drivers who might be in a situation where they are unprepared when they go for a night out and their inhibitions are lowered when they get behind the wheel.”

The pandemic was also a significant contributing factor in the spike in drunken and impaired driving. “Many of the activities and routines people were following to stay sober were shut down, so there was an increase in relapses,” Duffy said. “I also saw a lot of people who did not have a history with alcohol or drug problems develop them during the pandemic.”

“During the pandemic, I think a lot of drivers got into bad habits because they got away with it,” said Cynthia Brown, coordinator for STOP-DWI Nassau County. The STOP-DWI program operates in every county in New York State to track and prevent DWIs at a local level.

Higher rates of impaired drivers on the road were also attributed to a lack of enforcement. “The shortage [in enforcement], I think, seems to go back to the George Floyd [protests]. The police department seemed to pull back after that,” Brown said. “With Covid, everybody was so afraid of being exposed, the police were not mandated to stop people if they weren’t wearing a mask or it wasn’t clear if they were contagious.”

A Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaign sign, one of many that the organization has produced over the years in an effort to curb and eliminate drunken driving. // Image via Wikimedia Commons

“There is a pretty consistent correlation. When enforcement is more stringent and present, the numbers are more controlled,” said Richard Finn, coordinator for the Suffolk branch of STOP-DWI.

There are also several measures that advocates and experts believe can reduce the frequency of DWIs and discourage drivers from getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. One of the many legal changes being advocated for is reducing the BAC limit from 0.08 to 0.05.

Paige Carbone, the MADD executive director for New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, said, “We don’t think it’s a punishment for people. We think of it as a behavior modification tool.”

In 2009, New York became one of the first states to require ignition interlocks for all convicted DWI offenders as a part of Leandra’s Law. However, according to a report released by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), in New York only 26% of those convicted have the devices installed. Still, even with the limited law, interlocks still prevented more than 111,000 attempts by interlock users to drive drunk with a BAC of .08 or greater from 2006 to 2020.

A large portion of the funding used to run programs and improve enforcement that would prevent drunken and impaired driving comes from the fines that are levied against those convicted of a DWI.

Under the current New York law, police can only arrest drugged drivers if they are able to identify the substance the driver is under the influence of and if the drug is named on the New York Public Health Law List. The list does not cover emerging and synthetic drugs, and many drugs fall under the radar as a result.

MADD, STOP-DWI and Dedicated along with several other lawmakers and advocacy groups are pushing to remedy this loophole in the system.

Lee still deals with the effects of her crash three decades later. “I have word retrieval problems. A couple of weeks ago, I left the car running in the driveway for two and a half hours. I still need a wheelchair for long distances,” she said.

Lee said she believes that by helping those affected by drunken and impaired driving, she can serve as an example of healing.

“I am just a regular person, and I believe by simply being a regular person, [people] can see me and realize I made it through to the other side,” she said. “The pain never goes away, but you learn to adapt and live with it.”