Storm clouds rolled across the sky Tuesday, and fat droplets started to fall on the windshield of Johnston Police Officer Matt Leveillee’s sport utility cruiser.
He was watching the traffic blur past on Hartford Avenue. His eyes were trained on the drivers behind the wheel.
Did the tires cross the center line? Is the driver texting behind the wheel?
Just a few days ago Johnston Police arrested a man for driving under the influence at 3 p.m. on a town street.
In 2021, 16 drivers were arrested for DUI in Johnston, according to Johnston Police Chief Joseph P. Razza. Johnston Police arrested 13 alleged drunken drivers in 2020, and 18 in 2019.
Once an arrest has been made, however, the damage has already been done.
Some in local law enforcement and substance abuse prevention are hoping to curb destructive behavior before a crime has been committed. They’re hoping to spread the word that impaired driving is a 100 percent avoidable infraction.
“We have increased patrols throughout the month April to enforce distracted driving and we are also looking for impaired drivers as well,” Razza said Tuesday.
In 2019, Johnston Police cited 35 drivers for texting while driving, and 40 drivers for using a mobile phone while driving. In 2020, they wrote 20 citations for texting and 24 for mobile phone usage. And in 2021, the department cited 20 for texting and 30 for using a phone while behind the wheel.
“We are encouraging the public to put the phone down and pay attention to the road behind the wheel,” Razza said. “Also, if you are going to consume alcohol and drive, do it responsibly and designate a driver or use a ride service.”
On Tuesday morning, Razza met with Deputy Chief Mark Vieira, Patricia Sweet, Director of the Southern Providence County Prevention Coalition (which covers Johnston, North Providence and Cranston), and Arthur J. Martins, Coordinator for the Impaired Driving Engagement Council (of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association).
“The SPC Regional Coalition is partnering with the Impaired Driving Engagement Council (IDEC) for the state of RI who is partnering with the RI Department of Transportation Office on Highway Safety and the RI Police Chief’s Association,” Sweet explained.
The organizations are joining forces to stop impaired driving before tragedies occur.
“The goal is to approach the problem from a community centered method that seeks to change destructive behaviors,” Sweet explained. “Impaired driving is not only a public safety problem it is a public health problem.”
The new state council has been working with local coalitions against impaired driving.
“If we can collectively gain greater awareness and spread the word of the IDEC efforts, it will help reach the goal to keep everyone in RI safe on the road,” said Sweet, who also serves as Director of Prevention Programs & SPC Regional Prevention Task Force.
Martins is the retired Chief of the North Providence Police Department, and previously served with the Pawtucket Police for 28 years.
“Rhode Island has been identified as a mid-range state that has a high percentage of its roadway fatalities related to impaired driving. Rhode Island consistently is around that 40 percent range. And to be designated as a low-range state, you have to be below 30 percent. Most of the rest of the country, average, is about 30 percent of roadway fatalities related to impaired driving.”
The Ocean State has a lot of work to do.
“Here in Rhode Island, I know we’re at 40 percent, but we have the lofty goal of having zero deaths related to impaired driving,” Martins said. “Now that might take some time to get there, but through education, awareness, prevention, counseling and a strong social media campaign we hope to educate people on the dangers of impaired driving — not only alcohol, but also prescription drugs, and with the impending legalization of recreational marijuana, that’s a concern.”
The message is simple:
“If you choose to drink alcohol, don’t do it to excess and then drive,” Martins urged drinkers. “Have a plan in place, whether it’s a designated driver, calling a ride-share, an Uber, or calling a friend, just don’t make the mistake of getting behind the wheel and driving intoxicated.”
Martins recounted numerous recent examples of tragedy triggered by drunken drivers.
“We’ve seen some tragic incidents, just from the first of this year,” Martins said. “That young girl, Olivia Passeretti was killed, on Route 95, as the result of an individual who made some bad choices. We had a young lady who was killed in Lincoln, her fiancé was driving. He hit a tree on Cobble Hill Road and he fled, and they ended up apprehending him later, and there was evidence that he may have been impaired.”
April is also national Distracted Driving Awareness Month, and the Johnston Police Department has been “increasing our enforcement efforts throughout the town focusing on texting while driving and holding a cell phone while driving,” according to the department. “No text message or phone call is worth the potential damage it could cause on the road.”
“Additionally, we will be deploying additional patrols throughout the month sporadically,” Razza said. “We will also be updating our Facebook page on a weekly basis to get the message out to the public.”
Martins hopes cooperation between agencies on so many levels will help persuade drivers to make solid decisions.
“We’re working with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the local prevention coalitions, the local police departments, just to get the message out,” Sweet said. “Driving impaired is dangerous. Make better choices. And let’s stop the trend and save lives instead of engaging in this risky dangerous behavior that has a tendency to ruin lives and cause a lot of societal harm.”
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