Every September, drivers hear this message: School is open, drive carefully. This September, the District Attorney’s Office and local law enforcement agencies are working to educate the public about a more specific, serious danger on our roads, driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs. All drivers need to understand the grave risk of getting behind the wheel if you are impaired — every 31 minutes in this country, someone dies in an alcohol-related motor vehicle crash, and every 2 minutes, someone is injured (NHTSA). Drivers also face serious legal consequences of doing so and recently stricter penalties for driving while intoxicated or ability impaired went into effect in New York State.
Under the Child Passenger Act commonly known as Leandra’s Law, which took effect on December 18, 2009, it is now a felony when a first time offender operates a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or drugs with a child passenger 15 years of age or less. This law is named for 11 year old Leandra Rosado who was killed in an October 2009 drunk driving crash in New York City. Its passage was also certainly influenced by the July 2009 crash on the Taconic Parkway in Westchester in which a mother who was drunk and had used marijuana killed seven people, including four young children who were riding with her. Thus far, there have been 30 Leandra’s Law arrests in Westchester County. Nationwide, as here in Westchester, we’ve seen an increase in drunk driving by women, although the majority of the Leandra’s Law arrests involve men.
As of August 15, 2010, all drivers convicted of a misdemeanor or felony DWI must install and maintain an ignition interlock device on any vehicle they drive, at their own expense. These devices measure alcohol on the breath and prevent a car from being started if alcohol is detected. The device remains in place for the length of time determined by the court as part of the defendant’s sentence. This new measure makes New York one of only 13 states with across-the-board mandatory interlock laws.
Leandra’s Law also requires that any arresting agency notify the Statewide Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment when a parent or guardian is arrested for driving while intoxicated when a child is a passenger in the car. Even before the state’s new requirement, I considered it a part of my responsibility for the safety of Westchester’s children to routinely conduct an investigation into the circumstances and safety of children in the home when a parent or guardian was arrested for driving while intoxicated with a child in the vehicle. This might involve Child Protective Services, and might also result in protective orders affecting the arrested parent or caregiver.
So drive carefully, and think before you drink.
For more information, go to www.westchesterda.net.
Janet DiFiore is the Westchester County District Attorney.