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2009 News Releases

RI ACLU Criticizes Misleading Use of Drunk Driving Statistics

Posted: December 11, 2009|Category: Civil Rights

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Stating a need “to set the record straight,” the RI ACLU has today released a letter sent to state legislative leaders that responds to calls by police and other advocates for stricter drunk driving laws – including the use of “sobriety checkpoints” – in light of a recent federal report examining drunk driving fatalities in the state.

The report, issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), shows that 25 people were killed in Rhode Island in drunk driving accidents in 2008, up from 22 fatalities in 2007. Based on vehicle miles traveled (VMT), NHTSA concluded that Rhode Island’s drunk driving fatality rate increased from .25 to .31 per 100 million VMT between those two years. However, the ACLU criticized the “cries of alarm” about this from police and anti-drunk driving advocates, by noting that “even with this slight one-year increase in fatalities, Rhode Island still had the 15th lowest alcohol drunk driving fatality rate in the country in 2008.”

In the letter, addressed to State Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed and House Speaker William Murphy, the letter also pointed out: “Relying on a slight one-year increase in drunk driving fatalities in order to condemn the state’s current enforcement of the drunk driving laws, particularly when the number of overall fatalities is statistically small to begin with, is a completely inappropriate use of the data.” The letter notes that when the number of deaths in Rhode Island attributable to an “‘alcohol impaired driver” went down 30% between 2006 and 2007, there was no praise for what Rhode Island had been doing. “In fact,” states the letter, the statistics “show that, until the slight increase in 2008, the number of drunk driving fatalities had been steadily declining in Rhode Island for the previous five years, and, indeed, had been cut in half during that period.”

“Without in any way seeking to diminish the magnitude of this issue or the sincerity of the advocates,” the ACLU’s letter said that “the concerns expressed about the state’s drunk driving problem are, however unintentional, extremely misleading” and have been too often used to call for the passage of bills that “often have far-reaching civil liberties implications.”

The letter also referred to a report issued by the RI ACLU in 2006 that examined in more depth the ways that the state’s drunk driving statistics have been misused in the past, and concluded: “Obviously, any drunk driving fatality is one too many, but efforts to eradicate this problem cannot be premised on misleading statistics or ungrounded expectations about the utility of punitive laws.”

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