William is a 22-year-old college student who came to the Island this summer to work two jobs and save money for his senior year of school. He was basically cruising through life - enjoying the parties and bars on the Island - before moving on to finish his education and get a job.
But William's life plan took a serious detour the second week of July when he was pulled over by Island police around 3 a.m. on a desolate stretch of road. William, who asked that his last name and details of his case not be revealed, had just left a party in Edgartown and had been drinking earlier that night at several Oak Bluffs bars.
When the officer asked him if he had been drinking, he panicked before admitting he had consumed several cocktails. Within minutes he was taking a field sobriety test and blowing into a portable breathalyzer which revealed his blood alcohol level was .12, well above the state legal limit.
He then joined the ranks of both year-round and seasonal residents who have been charged with operating a motor vehicle under the influence of alcohol.
"I thought at first, ‘My parents are going to kill me,' but later I just kept thinking what an idiot I was. I could have just slept on the couch [at my friend's house], but instead I decided to drive. Now I have to deal with all of this," he said, adding:
"I only have myself to blame."
Because this is his first offense, he will likely get probation. But his license will still be suspended for 30 days, and he will have to participate in an alcohol-drug education program at his own expense (usually around $600). He will also have to pay between $800 and $5,000 in fines and court fees - not to mention the hell he has already caught from his parents.
And he is quick to admit, the gamble of driving home intoxicated didn't pay off, and it is unlikely he will take that chance anytime soon.
"To be honest, I have driven home after drinking a few [cocktails] plenty of times, and you kind of take it for granted when nothing happens. But that changes quick when you get arrested . . . it gets you to thinking not just about the [fines] and losing your license, but [also] about the dangers of drunk driving," he said.
While the arrest was an inconvenience, William does not have to mourn the loss of a loved one killed in an alcohol-related accident.
The last drunk driving fatality on the Island was in 2001 when a well-known former Tisbury selectman struck and killed a 25-year-old woman as she was walking her bicycle along the roadside. His blood alcohol level at the time was .14 - well over the state limit of .08 - and he was later convicted of drunk driving and vehicular homicide.
The last serious alcohol-related accident was last year in November when a 21-year-old woman was seriously injured when her vehicle was struck by a drunk driver at the intersection of Wing and County Roads. Although she suffered a lacerated spleen and multiple fractures to the sacrum, hip and pelvic area, she recovered from her injuries.
Recent accidents aside, police say the number of drunk driving arrests has declined in recent years due to a number of factors such as public awareness, stricter penalties like Melanie's Law and a change in attitude toward drunk driving.
Designating a driver or calling a cab has became much more common instead of the exception to the rule.
"People realize they aren't going to get a slap on the wrist anymore if they are caught [for drunk driving]," said Oak Bluffs police Lieut. Timothy Williamson. "But it's more than that . . . people's opinions have changed. It's not just automatically accepted anymore - the stakes are too high."
Statistics provided by the Edgartown district court show that 206 OUI cases were handled by the court in 2006 - or 16 per cent of the total caseload of 1,254. (That caseload included 2,954 different offenses.) From January through July 31 of this year the court has handled 111 OUIs in 634 cases - roughly the same pace as last year.
Court figures from 2001 show that a total of 278 drunk driving charges were processed, slightly higher than the 264 processed in 2000.
It is hard to put the numbers into historical context for a variety of reasons. For starters, the Island population has increased, both year-round and seasonal, and police also now go after drunk drivers more aggressively then they did, say, 25 years ago.
Court figures from 1981 show there were only 76 drunk driving cases heard, although the figure nearly doubled to 146 the following year, due to a tough new drunk driving law imposed in the spring of 1982. The law was enacted after the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court found the police department in Ware liable for the death of a motorist killed by a drunk driver, after an officer pulled over the driver and then allowed him to drive the three miles to his home.
The landmark case was a turning point not only in the legal system but for police and in the court of public opinion as well.
"It used to be standard operating procedure for police to take away someone's keys and give them a ride home if they were caught driving under the influence," said Chilmark police chief Timothy Rich, who has served as a police officer for over 30 years. "The only time you would consider charging someone was if they were involved in an accident with someone else."
The chief agreed views on drunk driving have changed.
"People used to think of the Vineyard as the cocktail circuit; they would go from one house to another and have a few drinks, and nobody thought twice about them getting behind the wheel to drive," he said.
Lieutenant Williamson picked up the theme.
"I think police in general had more tolerance for drunk driving, but especially here where everyone knows each other. But in this day and age of lawsuits and civil liabilities, all that has changed. Even if an officer wanted to give someone a break and give them a ride home, that person could then grab their spare set of keys get back on the road and kill someone. And that officer can be held liable," he said, adding:
"We live in a very different world than the one of 25 years ago, but it is a much safer world."
He said some people still cling to the misconception that drunk driving enforcement is a form of harassment. In reality, police are more interested in protecting people's safety then racking up a high number of arrests.
"We will actually go and stop someone we feel is intoxicated as they go to get behind the wheel and help them make other arrangements. If we pull someone over and they are intoxicated, we will arrest them, but our preference is obviously to stop them before they get behind the wheel," he said.
Chief Rich said officers are more likely to pull someone over for a broken tail light or erratic operation if it is after a certain time of night.
"Studies show that there is a much higher likelihood a motorist on the road between 12 a.m. and 5 a.m. has been drinking. So it is vital that officers at that time of night make first contact, to determine if that person is a danger to himself or others," he said.
Reaction to the tougher drunk driving law in 1982 was not universally positive, as some police officials felt a mandatory suspension of a driver's license would impose undue hardship on a person needing transportation to work or school. Some critics also complained the law did not address alcohol abuse, which many saw as the root of the problem.
Things are different today. At a party last weekend, this reporter observed a group of 20-somethings successfully lobby a friend who had been drinking to call a cab instead of driving the mile and a half home. Similar scenes play out at parties and bars every evening.
But police say drunk driving will always be a problem.
"I think sadly there will always be people who will not make good decisions because of their addictions," said Tisbury police chief John Cashin. "You see that even with young people in their twenties - people who are basically at the mercy of alcohol who will get behind the wheel and get themselves in trouble."
Charles Tuce, men's house manager for Vineyard House, said an arrest for drunk driving often triggers a moment of clarity for people suffering from alcohol or drug abuse.
"In a twelve-step program we talk about these signposts in people's lives, but for some people those signposts are actually billboards. But sometimes people won't stop and read the billboards unless something actually happens that disrupts their life - like a drunk driving accident or arrest," he said.
Mr. Tuce agreed that attitudes have changed about drunk driving, even among those who continue to struggle with addiction.
"A lot of guys who have gone to jail and are on probation are afraid to get their license back. They are afraid they are going to get behind the wheel and get into more trouble or worse," he said.