First published in the Journal Inquirer, July 6, 2012
[Minimal editing for blog]
By Kristen J. Tsetsi
While sitting outside at a local restaurant, my husband and I became engaged in conversation with a man walking to his car from the establishment’s bar area. He slurred and teetered, obviously intoxicated, so when he told us he was going to drive home, we tried to persuade him to take a cab, instead, so he wouldn’t risk hitting someone.
“I won’t hit anyone,” he said. “I’m not even drunk.”
We tried a little bit longer, unsuccessfully, and then told him he had two options: we could follow him to his car so we could get his license plate number and give it to the police as soon as he started the engine, or he could find another way home, whether it meant walking or calling a cab. My husband even offered to run home, get our car, drive back to the restaurant, and bring him wherever he needed to go.
He ultimately chose none of the above, opting instead to go back inside, where he said he would sit for a few hours without drinking until he sobered up. (We were both pretty sure he’d only stay until we left. And someone who isn’t drunk hardly needs time to sober up. Maybe he didn’t feel drunk, as many people don’t before getting in their cars. He – and I say this with compassion and sincerity – may be a candidate for the alcohol addiction test.)
Confronting the man, who was a complete stranger before he stopped at our table, is exactly what we shouldn’t have done, according to Sgt. Robert Duncan, Resident State Trooper for the town of Stafford.
“That’s up to the business establishment, who already has a rapport with the customer,” Duncan says. “Once you’ve notified the manager of the business, who doesn’t want someone leaving their establishment and getting in an accident, they can approach the customer to determine whether they’re fit to drive and then call the police, a taxi, or in extreme cases, offer to drive them home.”
If it sounds like too much trouble to find a manager to “tell on” someone for considering driving drunk, or if it seems like it would be butting into someone else’s private business to do so, it may help to first recall a recent news report of someone killed by a drunk driver; for instance, 52-year-old Jay Albert of East Hartford, who was on his bicycle when he was killed July 1 by a 22-year-old drunk driver.
By the time this story runs, there will very likely be another, more recent drunk driving incident to draw from as encouragement to report dangerous driving behavior, and reporting that behavior is exactly what police want citizens do to. Whether that means preventing someone from getting behind the wheel or reporting distracted driving as it’s happening, the phone calls are invited.
“We welcome phone calls,” Duncan says. “All law enforcement takes those phone calls seriously, and any type of information we can get from the public helps us. The more calls, the better, if it’s determined that the person is intoxicated. Better to be safe than sorry.”
The best way to determine whether someone is driving drunk is to take note of their speed—is it fluctuating from 40 miles per hour to 20 and then to 30?—and to watch for swerving. Drunk drivers often weave within their own lanes, Duncan says, and they may also be driving too slow or too fast for conditions.
Texting drivers are usually easy to spot, since they hold their devices close to the steering wheel so they can ostensibly watch the road while reading, typing, or—as in the case of New Canaan High School student Brianna McEwan, charged with manslaughter after fatally striking 44-year-old jogger Kenneth Dorsey—browsing the web.
A texting driver will weave and fluctuate speeds much like a drunk driver, and the position of their head will also indicate whether they’re watching the road.
If the driver seems drunk or is texting/browsing, call 911, Duncan says, adding that it’s important enough to use that number.
When reporting drunk driving, provide the license plate number and current location, and if possible, follow at a safe driving distance with 911 on the phone so police can stay apprised of the driver’s location and try to intercept them before they reach their destination.
If reporting texting while driving, it’s not important to follow them, Duncan says, because their driving is only dangerous in the moments they’re texting. Simply call 911 to report their license plate number and location.
To make the call, in the absence of a hands-free device, Duncan recommends pulling over and then returning to the road to follow an impaired driver (most phones have a speakerphone option) or having a passenger make the call.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and before cell phones, we were getting fewer phone calls because the person would have had to drive home to call us, or stop at a pay phone,” Duncan says. “Cell phones have made a great change. It’s a team effort to keep the roads safe, and the team is the public and law enforcement.”