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Westerly police have received a new, DUI-specific cruiser to enhance education and enforcement efforts through a partnership with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation. Courtesy Westerly Police Department

WESTERLY — With pandemic restrictions beginning to loosen and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations just around the corner, local officers are stepping up enforcement to combat drunken driving — and they’ll have a little help from the state in keeping an eye on roadways.

The Westerly Police Department, through a grant administered by the Rhode Island Department of Transportation’s Office on Highway Safety, is one of nine departments in the state awarded use of a cruiser and funding to staff patrols specifically for DUI enforcement. Police Chief Shawn Lacey and Capt. Steven Johnson said the program is one that is designed to combat a growing number of DUI fatalities across the state in recent years.

“In the past year, because of the pandemic, we have seen a lot fewer cars on the road, but the number of fatalities on the state’s roadways continued to trend up. Drunk driving continues to be a primary factor in many of these fatal crashes,” Lacey said.

According to data available through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Rhode Island had 57 fatal crashes in 2019, including 25 which involved drunk drivers, or 44%. Preliminary data, which is still being compiled, had already identified 71 fatal crashes in the state in 2020, with DUI already identified as a contributing factor in more than a quarter of those deaths.

Drunk driving remains a major concern nationwide as well, and was determined to be a contributing factor in 28% of all fatal crashes.

St. Patrick’s Day also remains one of the most dangerous times of the year. In 2018 alone, 73 people in the U.S. died in drunk-driving crashes on St. Patrick’s Day, and 38% of drivers killed in St. Patrick’s Day crashes had a blood-alcohol level over .08.

Johnson said that is why the Westerly Police Department has teamed up with RIDOT and law enforcement statewide to provide designated, roving patrols to help identify and remove drunk drivers from the road. The enforcement will take place during the week of St. Patrick’s Day, as well as both the weekend before and after.

He encouraged all those who planned to drink to come up with a plan in advance and to turn their keys over to someone who is not drinking.

"Drunk drivers are a continuing problem on our nation's roads, especially around days like St. Patrick's Day," Johnson said. "People need to know that they can go out for a night of fun and return home safely by ensuring they have a sober driver take them home. Don't be the reason someone, including yourself, doesn't get home.”

From a statewide perspective, Lacey said police chiefs have made a promise to target drunk driving in 2021.

The Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association hosted a press conference on Friday to announce the deployment of the recent grant vehicles. With the press conference, Lacey said last week that his department and those involved would also promise to continue enhanced efforts even beyond the St. Patrick’s Day holiday.

With the new cruisers, Lacey said departments across the state will be able to focus more directly on DUI enforcement with a dedicated vehicle and staff member. These efforts will continue to happen periodically, and Lacey said his agency would continue to be involved as long as there is funding to conduct such patrols.

The cruisers will be used for education purposes and are designed to visually resemble one another, with “DUI Task Force” prominently displayed as well as NHTSA’s “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” message. Cruisers were also awarded to police departments in Burrillville, Central Falls, Cranston, North Kingstown, Portsmouth, Warwick, West Warwick and Woonsocket.

“By granting these nine departments a dedicated alcohol-impairment enforcement vehicle, it assures that officers can locate a well-equipped cruiser immediately for sustained, high visibility and data-directed DUI enforcement,” said Sid Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs’ Association. “These cruisers will create increased general deterrence for impaired driving, as well as education, for the public statewide.”

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