Student views differ on drunk driving, texting while driving

DRUNKDRIVINGIt’s a Saturday night and the bars are filled with people, mostly college-aged students enjoying a night out on the town with friends. After a few alcoholic beverages, the intoxicated 21-year-old brain may decide that the connected body is OK enough to still drive.After jumping in the car with keys in hand, the ignition turns, the car is put into drive, and a buzzed journey begins down the road. Body and mind are relaxed, reaction time has been slowed, and the car begins to drift over the yellow line and back.

All of sudden flashing police lights fill the night sky, a sight almost blinding as glazed eyes adjust, and a siren pierces the otherwise tranquil evening. As the car pulls to the side of the road, all our driver can think is ‘What now?’

Six Norwich students found themselves in a situation similar to this one, out of a total of 39 DUI’s in the Northfield community last year. Those figures are in the 2013 Annual Report to the Community, which is prepared by Northfield Police Chief James Dziobek.

Compare that 15 percent of DUIs to the anonymous driving survey handed out at Norwich: 28 percent of those who participated admitted to driving while intoxicated.

When asked to explain why they chose to drive while intoxicated, three students said they did because they were “stupid.” Nine people had various answers, such as they were the “designated drunk driver” or they “wanted to see my true skills,” and 15 of the students said they had no other way home.

While most students think they have no other ride home, Connor Porter, 22, a senior criminal justice major from New York City, said otherwise. “If you can’t find anyone to drive for you, then don’t drive,” he said.

“Always have a buddy on standby,” Porter advised. “I at least have two guys that I know don’t drink, that I can call at any moment’s notice if I get stupid.”

No one should perform any extensive actions such as “operating machinery, handling firearms” or just plain driving after they have been drinking, according to Porter.

Porter has had plenty of personal experiences that helped him form his opinion of drunk driving. “I have been hit by a drunk driver. I know that my mother was hit by a drunk driver a whole bunch of years ago, and one of my best friends from high school lost his brother and two other people to a drunk driving accident,” he said.

A man under the influence had hit his friend’s car head on after swerving into the opposite lane. “(The accidents) definitely formed my opinions in this issue, I mean how can it not,” Porter said.

Porter also said that knowing someone has, or does, drive while under the influence makes him lose respect for them, changing the way he views them.

“Greg,” a student wishing to stay anonymous, admitted that he has been intoxicated while driving. The first time he drank, he was “more than tipsy,” but was one of the most sober people there, so he drove his friends home that needed a ride. Greg and his friends refused to call their parents because they were underage.

“I was a little bit nervous on the road, I’m not going to lie,” Greg said. “I know this is cliché and I know how weird this sounds, but even so I do believe that I’m pretty aware and coherent when I’ve been drinking.”

Even though Greg felt the effects of alcohol, he said he did not believe that it had affected his driving at all. “I knew that things weren’t all there when I was driving, but I made sure to stay in between the lines, my friends got home safe, (and) I got back home safe,” he said.

Greg said he has not had many experiences when he has had to drive drunk, but “my overall opinion on it is yes, it is bad, but the thing is I trust myself, especially behind the wheel driving and drinking.”

In another situation, Greg drove while intoxicated after turning 21. He was out bar-hopping with family on vacation, and a family member asked him if he was okay and offered him a ride. He refused, responding that he was fine.

He said he could feel the effects of the alcohol, but felt not to where he was unable to drive home. “I took precautions beforehand to drink water between drinks to make sure that it’s diluting the alcohol so it’s not hitting me so hard.”

However, he knows that there are some things you cannot be aware of and it only takes one second for an accident to occur.

“I understand that it’s not the right thing to do, which is why I always try to take caution when I know that I’m going to have to drive home that I drink enough to where I’m having a good time, but I’m still going to be okay by the time I need to drive somewhere,” Greg said.

Greg said it is out of fear that he takes precautions as well as, from “experiences I’ve had vicariously through friends (and) family members who have had accidents and who weren’t as careful as me. Or maybe they were as careful as me, but it’s that split second I was talking to you about, that chance, that anomaly that you can’t account for.”

Although Greg said he understands that what he is doing is not the best choice, he rationalizes that there is risk in everything that we do. It may not be an excuse, but he is taking precautions in order to balance going out and having fun, while watching out for whoever is with him to make sure they all can have a good time as well.

Greg has also called for a ride before because he felt that he has reached an unhealthy driving point. “Thankfully I haven’t gotten myself into trouble or had an accident and that I’ve learned through other people so I wouldn’t have to experience that myself,” Greg said.

Taking chances like Greg is a bad idea, according to Tashon Brown, 21, a senior mechanical engineering major from Waldorf, MD. “I don’t approve of drunk driving at all because it is extremely dangerous,” he said, agreeing with the views of Porter.

Students’ views often reflect their own experiences. A student who took the driving survey who chose not to be interviewed did leave remarks on why they do not drive while intoxicated: “I had a friend killed by drunk driving and that severely affected how I view drunk driving.”

Dziobek, the Northfield Police Chief, has some drunk driving incidents seared into his mind. The latest was from 2013 when Norwich hockey player Elizabeth Gemmiti was hit by a drunk driver while walking on the side of the road. He also cites the fatal crash of 2011 that took the life of a Norwich freshman, Renee Robbins, and also critically injured three other students. The driver, Derek Seber was taken into custody, according to WCAX TV’s archives.

Dziobek said after an officer stops a driver for possible DUI, it takes (approximately) 90 minutes to process a suspect.

First, the driver would have to do something to catch an officer’s attention, such as speeding, swerving, etc. Once the car has been pulled over and the officer is suspicious that alcohol was involved (either smelling it or a sign, such as slurring of words by the driver), the officer would then make observations while the driver provides their license, insurance, and registration.

The officer then asks questions, which are on the DUI processing form they must fill out during or after the initial questioning. “Where are you coming from? Do you know why I stopped you? Where are you going? Have you been drinking? The answer may be ‘yes, I was drinking’ or they may say ‘no I was not drinking,’” Dziobek said.

“Based upon all of those questions the officer will determine whether or not he needs to go further (and) at that point in time usually the officer asks the operator if he is willing to do some roadside dexterity tests,” Dziobek said. This series of standard tests is used as a tool for the officer to determine whether or not the operator of the vehicle is able to drive or not.

The different tests are a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus (HGN), a walk and turn around, and a one legged stand. While the driver is performing these tests the officer is looking for specific things such as not being able to balance, starting a test before told to, not being able to do the exercise requested, etc. These are all checked off on the DUI processing form.

The officer would then ask if the operator will submit to a roadside Breathalyzer test. If the driver tests for anything between .01 to .07 the officer will suggest someone else drives, though that is under the legal limit for anyone over 21. Officers cannot enforce anything at that level unless they feel the driver is a danger to others on the road.

The driver at any point in time can choose to not do the sobriety tests or the Breathalyzer tests. “There are consequences, but the fact remains is they’ll still get a citation to appear in court and they will get a notice of a pending license suspension,” Dziobek said.

Some states have different rules that can mean a person is better off not doing either test because it will help them in the long run in any court case. But Dziobek said that is not the case in Vermont. “A lot of people get this misinformation from other jurisdictions they may live in, in other states based upon the law. But he added, “by not taking the test in Vermont, when you sign your driver’s license you’re saying you will and by not taking it, it’s a criminal violation.”

After the physical agility test and the breath test, the driver would be taken to the Northfield police station. The driver would be read their rights and brought to a Breathalyzer machine for an official reading that can be printed off, according to Northfield police officer Ryan Koch.

On the printed-off copy from the machine information such as the driver’s name, birthday, age, gender, license number, where and what time they were stopped, and the test results of the breath alcohol content will appear.

“Once they do that, if they are cooperative we have this machine here,” Koch said. “This is where we fingerprint individuals and they stand here for a photograph.”

“If they are too drunk to stand on here, this is a $10,000 machine. We are not going to risk them damaging the machine at all,” he said. “We’ll have them go to court and the judge will order them to come back when they are sober.”

Although drunk driving is dangerous, Dziobek says that texting while driving is just as dangerous – and illegal. A Vermont law states that as of June 1, 2010, “All drivers are prohibited from texting while operating a moving motor vehicle on a highway,” according to the Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles (www.dmv.vermont.gov). However, Dziobek said that is simply “feel-good legislation,”

Despite the law, he said it is hard to convict people of the violation because with the technological advances of phones, the driver could have been using GPS, taking a phone call, or even unlocking their phone, all of which is not against the law.

“What does the officer have to do to prove (the driver was texting,)” he said. “Does that mean the officer has to seize the instrument that the person is texting on, have it analyzed? Of course that requires a search warrant, and all of this other stuff, to prove that this person was texting while they were driving.”

Recent studies have cited information that texting while driving – so-called “distracted driving” – is just as dangerous as being intoxicated.

“Texting is the most alarming distraction because it involves manual, visual, and cognitive distraction simultaneously. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for 5 seconds. At 55 mph, that’s like driving the length of an entire football field, blindfolded. It’s extraordinarily dangerous,” says www.Distraction.Gov., a website set up to address the issue.

The number of people killed in distraction-affected crashes was 3,328 in 2012. An estimated 421,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver, a nine percent increase from the estimated 387,000 people injured in 2011, according to the website.

That message does not always get across with young people. The website reports 10 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash.

Porter, for one, said “the laws that are in place make it worse than if it were allowed.” People have to have their phones in their lap now to text, but before there were any laws a person could hold the phone up and at least be able to see the road and their phone.

“I don’t agree with texting while driving, but I also don’t think the current laws do justice to the issue at hand,” Porter said. He said texting while driving is not as dangerous as driving while intoxicated because texting is a distraction just like loud music.

“If those things take away from your ability to drive then you shouldn’t do them, but if they don’t, then I don’t think it’s that big of an issue,” Porter said. “I think that drunk driving is a legitimate issue because it is a physical impairment, it is meant to slow your reaction time.”

But many states view the situation differently, based on the alarming rise in distracted driving incidents. Currently, 43 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for drivers of all ages; 12 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit drivers of all ages from using hand-held cell phones while driving; and 37 states and D.C. ban cell phone use by novice drivers, according to the web site.

The Norwich driving survey found texting while driving was widespread, however: Only 18 participants out of 100 said they don’t text while driving.

Reasons cited were because it was an emergency or to tell someone they were on their way. Some said they only text at a stoplight. Other responses from participants included that they texted because they could, they wanted to, the convenience of it, or they were too impatient to wait for a stoplight.

Brown does not agree with texting while driving, but like many others, does not think it is as bad as driving while under the influence.

“In my opinion, drunk driving is worse than texting while driving because when someone is drunk, their abilities to understand and react are impaired,” he said.

The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles’ website cites the consequences of being convicted, as well as links to websites with statistics or research on texting while driving, and YouTube videos relating to texting while driving that argue how dangerous it actually is.

A fact seen in the “Did you know?” section reads, “If you are driving 70 mph, you’re traveling 100 feet per second. “According to the Stop the Texts, Stop the Wrecks’ website (www.stopthetextsstopthewrecks.com) there are ways to take precaution with distracted driving, just like having a designated driver for going out on the town.

Among ideas mentioned are putting your phone where you will not be able to reach it, thus enforcing “out of sight, out of mind,” or putting your phone on silent, so you do not know when you get a text. There are also apps available to prevent texting while driving, or simply assigning someone as a designated texter if others are in the car.

The anonymous survey student who had a friend die of a drunk driving crash also was in a severe texting -related car crash themselves where a girl drove into their car while she was texting and a fatality occurred.

Greg, the anonymous student, has also had a personal experience with texting while driving after a close family friend he called “a second mother,” was killed after being hit by a driver who was texting. This situation had affected Greg, but he admits he still texts and drives today.

“Even though that happened to her, I have and still do on occasion text while I drive,” he said, “a lot more so than I should for somebody who has experienced something like that.” Greg tries to remind himself to wait to respond to a text until after he has stopped or reached his destination, “but it’s hard to remember every single time, whenever I’m driving.”

“I know I’m being somewhat hypocritical, but I’m human,” Greg said. “It is something I’m trying to manage because that’s how somebody lost her life.”

Driving while intoxicated and texting while driving could be argued to be equally as dangerous,” he said, but Greg said personally, he did not know himself whether or not it was.

Regardless, Greg said, “She’s not there anymore because somebody just couldn’t put down the phone.”

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