Westport DUI Rates Decline Since 2008 Study

Eliza Llewellyn, Web News Editor

Ten years ago, a traffic fatality involving drunk driving occurred every 30 minutes. This year, the frequency had dropped to one fatal accident every 48 minutes, according to Chris Lemone, Outreach Counselor at Staples. This nationwide decrease in fatalities is consistent with trends in Fairfield County. In a 2008 study prepared by the Lower Fairfield County Regional Action Council (LFCRAC), Fairfield County was reported to have the highest percentage of alcohol related motor vehicle accidents in the state.  In the past few years, incidences involving drinking and driving have declined.

Ingrid Gillespie, the director of LFCRAC, was involved in compiling data for the study. Gillespie gives talks to parents, supports teens with substance abuse problems, and facilitates networking meetings among teen groups spreading awareness about and working to prevent substance abuse. Gillespie focused on high rates of underage drinking as contributing to the rate of motor accidents in Fairfield County.

“[In Fairfield County] kids have more money than average, and it tends to be a higher pressure area,” Gillespie said.  Lemone also stressed the availability of alcohol to teenagers, who may have older siblings or parents who keep alcohol in the house.

Since the 2008 study, instances of drinking and driving have recently shown decreases. According to Captain Arciola of the Westport Police, there were 323 total arrests for driving under the influence (DUI) in the years 2008, 2009, and 2010, or an average of 108 per year. In 2011, the total arrests dropped to 76.

Both Gillespie and Arciola cite effective prevention measures for facilitating this decrease. According to Arciola, Westport has received state grants to dispatch extra patrols on the lookout for intoxicated drivers.  Arciola also believes that CT’s stringent consequences for underage drinking discourage teens from drinking and driving.

Any incident involving underage drinking and driving will result in a mandatory fine and a suspension of the minor’s license for 30-60 days. “No one wants to lose the ability to drive a car,” Arciola said. “It has a big impact.”

But rates of underage alcohol consumption are still a concern.

Gillespie also emphasized the power of youth groups that help educate fellow teenagers about the dangers of driving under the influence. At Staples, SafeRides provides a way to get home without getting on the road while intoxicated. According to Gregg Bonti ’12, president of Safe Rides, the club takes home an average of 20-30 students on a typical Saturday night. Bonti estimates that 70% of these students are intoxicated. “ I think that SafeRides makes a very significant difference in reducing incidents in our town,” Bonti said. “We are a well known organization that people call when they are in potentially dangerous situations.”

Another student group, the Teen Awareness Group (TAG) works to discourage substance abuse. “Through hard work and dedication, we’ve made a change in the way drinking and driving is viewed,” Lemone said. “It’s cooler to get into Harvard than to be the biggest partier.”

For more info, check out http://www.ct.gov/dmhas/lib/dmhas/prevention/ctspf/lfcrac.pdf