By JACOB MARROCCO Members of the law enforcement community gathered at Doric Park in Cranston on Feb. 12 for a "e;Blessing of the Roads,"e; an event meant to promote driver safety and spotlight the growing number of deaths of the state's major roadways.
Members of the law enforcement community gathered at Doric Park in Cranston on Feb. 12 for a “Blessing of the Roads,” an event meant to promote driver safety and spotlight the growing number of deaths of the state’s major roadways.
Shortly before Father Joseph Escobar, chaplain for the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, led a prayer, Department of Transportation Director Peter Alviti offered some stark statistics on roadway fatalities thus far in 2021. He said the state has already seen seven fatalities, up from four at this point in 2020.
Last year ended with 73 roadway fatalities, which State Police Superintendent Col. James Manni noted was the second-most on record. That figure was up from 57 in 2019, a jump that Alviti said represents a “huge increase.”
“I wish I could tell you so far this year, so good. But the fact is, we’ve already had seven fatalities, and it’s only February,” Alviti said, before turning his attention to the spike in 2020. “[Seventy-three fatalities] is just too many lost souls, and while we can chalk it up to various factors related to the pandemic – like increased substance abuse, anxiety, suppressed anger or people seeing fewer cars on the road and therefore feeling that they can speed – the fact is the results are all the same, an increase in fatalities.”
There were some signs of promise recently, though. There were no fatalities during the “notorious” Super Bowl weekend, and no drivers lost their lives during either of the last two snowstorms.
Despite those glimmers of hope, Alviti said, “we’re still not having a great new year.” He pledged that his department’s Office on Highway Safety would continue working closely with local and state law enforcement to curb the figures.
“Today, every one of us participating, and every Rhode Islander, wants a better and safer year ahead,” Alviti said. “So today’s ceremony, we’re recognizing first responders and ask through the power of a simple collective prayer, to keep them safe. It’s a way to also take a breath and start anew, and make a fresh commitment to be more responsible on our roadways and be more attentive and to not get on our highways while we’re under the influence.”
Manni recalled a 2019 conversation with Alviti outside the State House, during which the director said the state has a “serious issue” regarding DUIs and fatal crashes. Manni said he told Alviti that if he could secure the funding, Manni would create a traffic safety unit of troopers devoted to enforcing impaired driving and DUI regulations.
As soon as the unit came together, violations increased “from one corner of the state of Rhode Island to the other.” He said, in 2020, State Police issued 36,275 citations, including more than 12,000 for speeding and 1,400 for not wearing a seatbelt. He did add, though, that seatbelt citations decreased significantly from 13 percent of tickets to just 4 percent.
“The members of the traffic safety unit, the Rhode Island State Police, we’re out there 24/7, and we’ll arrest anyone that is caught driving under the influence, but we’re not done,” Manni said. “We have a long way to go. I’ve met with my command staff, and we’re going to be meeting with DOT soon and the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association soon, and we’re going to be coming up with a plan to include our municipal partners, which are integral in helping us solve this problem in the state of Rhode Island.”
Sean Cassidy, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the state “has a lot more work to do” in curbing alcohol-related accidents and deaths. He noted that the “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” initiative recently paired victims’ families with officers across the state for more than 30 DUI patrols.
“This was a great way to pay tribute to these victims during the holiday season,” Cassidy said. “In 2021, we’re asking everyone to please help law enforcement as we try to have a better year on our roadways. We need you to think ahead, have a plan. There is never a reason to be behind the wheel impaired. With the options of rideshare programs, taxis, staying at somebody’s house – making sure you make good decisions while you’re out there.”
West Greenwich Police Chief Richard Ramsay, president of RIPCA, offered three tips for drivers to follow to make roadways safer – ask oneself if they’re impaired before driving; wear their seatbelt; and turn their phone off before starting the car.
“Before you leave your driveway, turn your phone off or ensure that it’s connected to a bluetooth device,” he said. “Whatever that text message or phone call that you might be receiving, there’s one thing I can assure you: It’s not more important than someone’s life. We all have a long way to go to achieve our goal of zero roadway fatalities in our state. Law enforcement will be doing their part. We cannot do it alone, we need your help.”