Rhode Island Increases Penalties for Breathalyzer Refusal


Apparently, Rhode Island didn't enjoy the distinction of having the highest breathalyzer refusal rate in the country. In 2001, 84.9% of suspected drunk drivers refused testing. Additionally, news reports indicated that Rhode Island had the highest percentage of alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the nation. Pressure from the outside increased, as a group calling itself "End Needless Death on our Roadways" named Rhode Island first on its "Fatal Fifteen" list and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety rated Rhode Island-and no other state-"poor".

That pressure, combined with outcry from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to toughen state DUI laws and refusal penalties, led the legislature to criminalize some breathalyzer test refusals and enact harsher penalties across the board.

Rhode Island Breathalyzer Refusal Penalties
  Old Law Current Law
1st Offense 3-6 month license suspension 6-12 month license suspension
2nd Offense
(in 5 years)
Misdemeanor charge
Up to six months in jail
1-2 year license suspension
Fine of $600-1000
60-100 hours community service
No jail time
1-2 year license suspension
Fine of $300-500
No community service
3rd Offense
(in 5 years)
Misdemeanor charge
Up to one year in prison
2-5 year license suspension
$800-1000 fine
Minimum 100 hours community service
No jail time

$400-500 fine
No community service

The law also requires the Attorney General's office to submit an annual "Impaired Driving Report" to the General Assembly, identifying the number of breathalyzer refusals, the number of cases in which a defendant is charged with both DUI and Breathalyzer Refusal, and the number of DUI fatalities.

However, a January report by the American Civil Liberties Union's Rhode Island ACLU) Affiliate questions the statistics that led to these reforms. Representative J. Patrick O'Neill, in introducing the bill, said, "Rhode Island is at the bottom of the list when it comes to drunk driving laws, and the result is that we have the absolute worst rate in the country for fatal, alcohol-related accidents."

For three of the four previous years, the ACLU report indicated, National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) statistics showed that alcohol-related fatalities as a function of miles driven were lower in Rhode Island than the national average. Why, then, does the percentage of alcohol-related fatalities look so much higher in Rhode Island than the rest of the country? Ironically, the answer is that Rhode Island has one of the lowest traffic fatality rates in the United States. Rhode Island's rate of traffic fatalities per population is approximately half the national average. The rate per miles driven, while somewhat higher, is still significantly below the national average.

Thus, of traffic related fatalities, a fairly high percentage are alcohol related. In 2004, that total was 42. For the same reason, a high percentage of Rhode Island traffic fatalities are classified as related to speed, although the number of such fatalities is quite small as a function of population and miles driven.

Likewise, it's unclear that Rhode Island's previous refusal law was responsible for the high percentage of refusals. While criminalizing breathalyzer refusal will almost certainly decrease the number and percentage of refusals among suspected drunk drivers, dozens of other states with only civil penalties already have much lower rates.

The real question is whether the number of drunk drivers and/or alcohol-related traffic fatalities will be reduced by the change in the law, and that is far less clear.

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