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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

There’s a way to stop DWI deaths

The refusal to require alcohol-interlock devices in new vehicles endangers lives.

Thomas Murphy, of Holbrook, is led out of

Thomas Murphy, of Holbrook, is led out of the Seventh Precinct in Shirley on Monday. Photo Credit: James Carbone

The only difference between me and Thomas Murphy, the man accused of plowing his Mercedes-Benz into a crowd of Boy Scouts while drunk and killing one of them, is luck.

I drove drunk thousands of times, most every night for more than a decade, before getting sober 15 years ago. But I never had the misfortune to cross paths with a victim while committing that terribly heinous, terribly common crime. Had you asked me on any given day, before I took the first drink of the evening, what I thought of drunken driving, I’d have said it was a scourge. Most anyone would.

But when a person drives to a bar to drink, which I always did, that person tends to drive home after drinking. Once you get enough liquor in you, the liquor makes the decisions.

Annual deaths from drunken driving have declined from 22,000 a year in 1982 to about 10,000 a year, a major achievement, particularly when you consider how many more miles are driven now. But the total has been stuck at around 10,000 deaths for most of a decade. Progress has slowed. And that’s particularly maddening when you consider that we have the technology, and claim to have the desire, to stop such deaths altogether.

Murphy, after drinking vodka at the Swan Lake Golf Club in Manorville and refusing a ride on Sept. 30, on a sunny Sunday afternoon, intersected tragically with his 12-year-old victim, Andrew McMorris. Murphy’s Mercedes-Benz hit McMorris and other members of his troop as they walked down the side of David Terry Road.

Murphy’s blood test, taken hours after the accident, showed a blood-alcohol content of 0.13 percent. Forensic toxicologists estimate it was 0.19 at the time of the crash, almost 2.5 times the legal limit.

Murphy, a 59-year-old Holbrook man, is despised, and rightfully so. If convicted of aggravated vehicular homicide and other charges, he will go to prison, and rightfully so. A boy has lost his life, and a family has lost its beloved boy. Such dreadful thefts must be punished.

And this waste, this almost entirely preventable loss of life to drunken driving, must stop.

We can deploy alcohol ignition interlocks in every vehicle that make it impossible to drive drunk. We are losing 10,000 people a year by refusing not to. We also can ask ourselves and our friends, every time a car is piloted to a place where drinking is planned, “How is this vehicle getting home? Why is it being driven to a place where more than one drink likely will be consumed?” And we can begin policing driving while intoxicated by agreeing that a car parked at a bar for hours provides enough reasonable suspicion that the driver is drunk for a cop to investigate.

If you spend time in a 12-step program, in the rooms of recovery, you meet people who killed people in drug- or drink-addled hazes. Addicts whose irresponsibility ended lives are part of the scene. Driving while impaired is the most common reason. And their regret is sincere, even touching. In a statement, Murphy said, “A beautiful, wonderful child lost his life. I can never make that right . . . I know that nothing can ever fill the void left by the death of your beloved son. I am so very sorry.”

Anyone who has ever driven drunk committed the underlying action Murphy is accused of. That includes a lot of well-intentioned, upstanding people who aren’t alcoholics and who drive drunk only once in a while, or once in their lives.

If I were to start drinking again, I would likely, despite my best intentions, drive drunk. It shouldn’t be possible for me to do so.

Drunken driving deaths are optional. We are allowing them to happen, even as we decry them.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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