The smallest state has a big drunken driving problem

Families, law enforcement ask General Assembly to strengthen impaired driving laws

By: - May 30, 2023 4:33 pm

Headshots of Rhode Islanders victim to impaired drivers. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

PROVIDENCE — Kristine Bouthillier of West Warwick does not want to be in the spotlight. She just wants her son’s life to return to the way it used to be.

She knows that is impossible. So instead, Bouthillier was standing at a podium in Senate Judiciary room 313 at the Rhode Island State House on May 25. She told her listeners about the night in the winter of 2022 when her then 17-year-old son, Kevin MacDonald, and his best friend Matt Dennison, also 17, were hit by an alleged drunken driver on Route 102 in Exeter while returning from a hockey game and going to another one. 

MacDonald was seriously injured but survived the crash. Dennison did not. 

Kevin MacDonald (left) and his best friend Matt Dennison (right). (Photo courtesy of Kristine Bouthillier)

“My son survived, but survived at what cost?” Bouthillier said at a gathering with other parents of children killed or injured in accidents involving impaired drivers. They were joined by lawmakers and representatives from police departments, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) RI, the Rhode Island Attorney General’s Office and Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos. 

On display were large photos of victims of impaired drivers, including the dates they were hit.

The purpose of the event was to draw attention to a package of bills that would crack down on impaired and reckless driving.

One bill, sponsored by Sen. Leonidas Raptakis, a Coventry Democrat, would extend the limit on prior offenses that police take into consideration when charging an impaired driver with a more serious repeat offense from five to 10 years. Companion legislation is sponsored in the House by Rep. Patricia Serpa, a West Warwick Democrat.

Under current law, Rhode Island has the shortest period of looking back at prior offenses in New England. Connecticut, Maine and New Hampshire each have 10-year look back periods, while Massachusetts and Vermont consider lifetime records.

“That’s an important tool that’s missing in the state of Rhode Island,” Raptakis said.

Wesley Pennington, program director for MADD RI, said in an interview that the lookback extension would greatly assist law enforcement in cracking down on impaired driving.

In his 30-year career as a Rhode Island State Police trooper, Pennington recalled arresting impaired drivers who had been previously charged with a DUI more than five years prior, but the law prevented him from charging them with a second offense, which carries stricter penalties.

“That just puts more people out there on the road driving impaired and puts more people at risk,” he said.

Raptakis sponsored another bill that would make the maximum prison term for killing someone due to impaired driving 30 years — double the current penalty. Convicted drivers would also have to pay up to $20,000 in fines and have their license revoked for five to 10 years. Serpa introduced companion legislation in the House. 

Both of Raptakis’ bills were held for further study by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 25.

‘Here in the state of Rhode Island, we’re not going to tolerate any more death,’ Lt. Gov. Sabina Matos said. (Photo by Christopher Shea/Rhode Island Current)

State ranks among worst in drunken-driving deaths

Calls to update the state’s impaired driving punishments come after a 2022 study from Forbes Advisor ranked Rhode Island as having the second-highest rate of deaths caused by drunken drivers in the country.

According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 49% of fatal car accidents in Rhode Island between 2019 and 2020 were caused by drunken driving. Only Montana, which allowed open containers of alcohol in vehicles until 2005, was worse at 51%.

In 2021, the Rhode Island State Police’s Traffic Safety Unit arrested 451 drivers for impaired driving, according to its annual report — nearly 60% of all traffic-based arrests.

“The data clearly indicates that we have a crisis,” Diana Gugliotta, director of public affairs for AAA Northeast, said at the May 25 gathering at the State House.

What’s driving this crisis? Gugliotta said it’s the lack of sobriety checkpoints — something that does not exist as they violate the Rhode Island constitution.

In 1989, the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruled in Pimental v. Dept. of Transp. that “allowing such roadblocks or checkpoints would diminish the guarantees against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

This ruling, Gugliotta said, prevents the state from collecting data on hotspots for impaired driving — which is done in neighboring Massachusetts. Pennington said having such checkpoints “would be huge” in reducing the number of impaired drivers.

“I am in full support of sobriety checkpoints here in Rhode Island, but first we have to change the constitution before we can change the law,” Pennington said.

For now, Pennington said harsher penalties are a good place to start. 

Bouthillier said while the bills can’t undo the trauma her son experienced and continues to deal with, it can help families get the justice they deserve.

“Hopefully nobody has to go through what we’ve gone through,” she said in an interview after the gathering. “I’m begging for harsher penalties.”


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.