Though drinking and driving amongst Rhode Island college students has not increased in recent years, the state ranks as the fourth most dangerous state for drunk driving. The state consistently reports a high number of fatalities related to alcohol impairment. In 2013, drunk driving related motor vehicle crashes were responsible for 24 deaths. These figures are likely not even accurate and are, in reality, much higher. The reports at hand can only account for the incidents recorded by hospitals, insurance companies, and police departments. This does not include the accidents where individuals do not admit to alcohol impairment and hit and run incidents that go unresolved.
Ramping Up Responses
Due to the increasing media coverage of the Rhode Island college student drunk driving epidemic, the legal community has ramped up efforts to address this issue. As of 2015, the Providence Police Department introduced a mobile blood alcohol testing unit, nicknamed the “BATmobile”. This vehicle will allow the PPD to conduct breathalyzer scans, LiveScans and book drunk driving offenders on the spot. In 2016, the Rhode Island State Police detailed stories of drunk driving fatalities in a $75,000 in an anti-drunk driving campaign video. These efforts are part of an increasingly severe crackdown on Rhode Island college students facing DUI or DWI charges, due to a number of highly publicized drunk driving incidents directly involving students of Rhode Island colleges:
Matthew Iaiennaro, University of Rhode Island
In 2015, Matthew Iaiennaro was arrested for DUI. He was charged with serious bodily injury, driving to endanger resulting in bodily injury and refusal to submit to a chemical test. Though he and the driver he rear-ended were not seriously hurt, his passenger, another University of Rhode Island student, was seriously injured and hospitalized.
Mark Sterner, Johnson & Wales University
Mark Sterner was a 21-year-old senior at Johnson & Wales University and on spring break vacation. He was the driver in a drinking and driving accident that killed three of his fraternity brothers. Barely surviving the crash, Sterner was later convicted of three counts of DUI manslaughter and sentenced to 45 years in prison. Now out on probation, Sterner speaks about the dangers of drunk driving at high schools and colleges around the nation.
Thomas Hug, University of Rhode Island
The adolescent drinking prevalent amongst Rhode Island college students can be damaging or fatal, even to students who don’t directly participate. In 2016, 17-year old Hunter Stephenson was tried as an adult after striking and killing a motorist. The victim was 21-year old Thomas Hug, a junior at the University of Rhode Island.
Heidi Hartzell, Roger Williams University
A DUI case from this year became a cause for concern as it involved the director of student conduct at Roger Williams University. Heidi Hartzell, the director of student conduct and community standards, faces two misdemeanor charges for DUI. While not involving Rhode Island college students, it shows a pervasive culture of drinking and driving. Hartzell has since been reassigned at RWU.
Unfavorable Conditions for Rhode Island College Students
While drunk driving is dangerous, harmful and even deadly, many factors that impair driving have nothing to do with being intoxicated. Many college students are new to driving and prone to a high accident rate. In Rhode Island specifically, historical architecture and streets pose problems for drivers. They are small and often in various states of disrepair, creating unfavorable driving conditions. Winter weather also contributes to driving difficulties. Therefore, drivers have a high likelihood of an accident whether intoxicated or not.
Medical experts and law officials alike have advocated for improved drunk driving laws, particularly concerning blood alcohol content. Minor accidents involving another driver result in harsh penalties even with a low blood alcohol content level. These accidents often happen among sober drivers. Drivers with high blood alcohol content receive a less severe punishment if there isn’t an accident. Drunk driving often applies to people who do not appear or feel intoxicated.
In addition to criminal charges and jail time, convicted first-time drunk drivers do not receive a provisional license. If convicted, college students would lose the ability to drive to work or school. They face massive fines and inflated insurance rates, a financial burden to themselves and their families. Students at Rhode Island colleges convicted of drunk driving also face punishment from their university. While there are no specific procedures in place regarding notification, universities will punish students severely. This serves to discourage others from the same behavior and help avoid legal firestorms. Consequences include suspension, expulsion, and bans from extracurricular activities such as sports or Greek life. Despite the severe consequences of drunk driving for Rhode Island college students, understanding the crucial elements of a DUI can ensure the best possible outcome.