Fighting Drugged Driving While Cutting Back Treatment?

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

We know that 18% of fatally injured drivers test positive for an illicit drug, and that 23% of those drugged drivers are under the age of 25. Last week, when the White House announced its new partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving, these facts were a potent factor. The partnership’s plan is to create an awareness campaign and to call parents to action against poly-abuse, or misuse of both alcohol and drugs. This is all well and good, but awareness alone can’t always stop a binge drinker or a drug user from getting behind the wheel. Sometimes, treatment is absolutely necessary—and unfortunately, treatment programs all over the country are being shut down every day.

In Connecticut, our Phoenix House Driver Intervention Program is on its last legs; the state is closing it down in December. Until now, participation in the program has been mandated by the CT Department of Motor Vehicles; DUI offenders have to complete it in order to reclaim their licenses. It provides one year of customized and evidence-based treatment in a step-down fashion, starting with a 48-hour intensive residential stay and scaling back to one night per week and then one hour every three months for clinical follow-up. We cover topics from 12-step recovery to laws to anger management to quelling cravings, and clients are constantly journaling, attending meetings, and working to alter their habits.

But starting in 2012, all these folks will have only one option: mandatory ignition interlock devices. That means that for two years after their license is restored, they’ll only be able to start their car once they pass a breathalyzer test. Sure, this can help prevent drunk driving. But what about the other drugs that more and more drivers are using? What about the reasons behind that person’s drug or alcohol abuse? What about all the years after that two-year breathalyzer sentence is complete? Ignition interlock devices are a surface fix, whereas treatment addresses the roots of substance abuse and the motivations behind destructive behaviors. Healthy habits learned in treatment won’t just get your car to start; they’ll change your life for the better.

I know that the state of Connecticut – and so many other states whose treatment programs are currently being curtailed – does believe in the power of treatment. That’s why the lawmakers first pushed for programs like ours. But the lobbyists thought that treatment wasn’t enough, that it was too uncertain, and that the ignition interlock device was a more concrete and “foolproof” method, despite the fact that there wasn’t enough research to fully support it. The mandatory breathalyzer costs a person $3,000 for a temporary fix while the driver intervention program costs them $1,000 for a permanent change of life. Since the state couldn’t mandate both methods simultaneously, they made a choice. In a few short months, the more expensive, less-researched breathalyzer will be in. Intervention, education, and treatment will be out.

These days, our Driver Intervention Program is filling up with clients from all over the state, trying to get treatment while they still can. We get a lot of positive feedback; during the final months of treatment, folks come in for their clinical check-ins and say things like, “Wow, everything we learned in the groups was true!” They develop strong friendships here, become safer drivers, and learn coping skills that will last a lifetime. My only hope is that the lawmakers, in their self-professed efforts to “make our roadways safer,” will come to their senses and realize what these clients already know: that treatment, in all its complicated uncertainty, saves lives.

Chris Bernier
Program Director
Phoenix House Hampden County Community Corrections Center
Phoenix Houses of New England

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