04/10/2012 05:19 pm ET

Drunk Driving Arrest Of Rhode Island Senate Majority Leader Sparks Ignition Interlock Push In State

Rhode Island has a drinking problem. More people per capita die from alcohol-related driving fatalities in the state than in either of its neighbors, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Advocates against drunk driving there can tick off a grisly roster of deaths, including one incident where a teenager drove a boat over his friend, killing him, after a day of drinking.

Now the high-profile arrests of two legislators involved in incidents that mixed alcohol and cars have sparked a debate over whether the state has done enough in recent years to curb drunk driving. Advocates say state lawmakers are setting a bad example not just behind the wheel, but also in the state's General Assembly, where winning approval for tougher laws against drunk driving has long been an uphill battle. (Full disclosure: the author of this article lobbied the legislature on unrelated legislation in 2009.)

"People drive drunk in our state because they know they can. They just know they can," said Gabrielle Abbate, the executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, adding that a relaxed attitude toward drunk driving seems to be part of the state's "culture."

In January, police arrested State Representative Robert Watson, a Republican, after finding him in his parked car with a marijuana pipe, an open can of Natural Ice, and two bottles of Corona. South Kingstown police noted that he appeared "highly intoxicated" and charged him with possession, but they declined to pursue a drunk driving charge, citing "legal issues." The representative denied driving under the influence and plead no contest to the possession charge.

In March, police charged a high-ranking Democrat, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio, with drunk driving. That charge was dropped after he admitted to refusing a Breathalyzer test, and his driver's license was suspended for six months as punishment.

"Time to Drop Dominick Ruggerio Like a Hot Potato," a local columnist blared at Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed on Tuesday -- but so far, she has stood by the majority leader. Ire in the press, meanwhile, has for the most part been at another senator who tried to intimidate police at the scene. A state senate spokesman did not return a request for comment.

Abbate has stepped short of calling for Ruggerio's resignation or removal from his leadership spot, saying she is not in the position to do that. But for drivers like Ruggerio, she would like to see the state implement an ignition interlock law that would use technology to keep drunk drivers off the road. Under such a law, she said, the senate majority leader likely would have had his license suspended for a shorter time -- just three months -- but then for the next six months, he would have been required to blow into one of the systems in order to make his car start.

"The states that are doing it are seeing a really visible decrease in their amount of fatalities. And it's changing that offender's behavior," she said.

Whether such a law could pass in Rhode Island is far from clear. Abbate said it took the state 16 years to lower the legal blood alcohol content limit for drivers from .10 to .08, which is now the limit in all 50 states, and she and others often faced skeptical legislators as they lobbied for such a change.

Barrington Police Chief John LaCross, whose officers arrested Ruggerio, said he was frustrated by the long lag time in lowering the limit, and in passing a bill to stiffen penalties for "social hosts" who allow teens to drink at their homes.

"I'm not going to comment on any state senators or representatives," he added. "But it's always a battle."

"I think that people should know, and people don't realize, you can never quantify how many lives are saved by removing a drunk off the road," he said.

Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin, a Democrat, is sponsoring a bill to introduce ignition interlocks in the state. Abbate will meet with her and Paiva-Weed this week to discuss it.

Ruggerio's arrest, and the attention it has brought to the issue, "should make it easier to get it passed," Abbate said. "Will it? I don't know."