Drunk driving related deaths continue to persist throughout the United States and New Jersey. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) was founded in 1980 and since that time DWI deaths have been cut in half, but there’s still work to be done to reduce deaths. MADD representative Steven Benvenisti told NJ Today Senior Correspondent Desiree Taylor he is on a personal crusade to end DWI after suffering severe injuries while in college when he was struck by a drunk driver.
In 2010 there were more than 10,000 deaths from drinking and driving throughout the United States. “In New Jersey it’s over 150 a year just from drinking and driving,” Benvenisti said. “And that’s not even to account for the people who are injured and injured seriously because of DWI.”
Benvenisti is one of those who were seriously injured. He explained that when he was a senior at The College of New Jersey with six weeks left to graduate, he was struck by a repeat offender drunk driver who lost control of his vehicle. He was knocked unconscious and thrown 70 feet. After the crash, he was in a coma and his prognosis was grave. “Within an hour my parents were called by the physicians asking permission to use my organs for donation because it didn’t look like I would live for more than a couple of hours,” he said.
But Benvenisti beat the odds. He was in the hospital as an in-patient for six months and underwent 15 major surgeries. “I was in a coma for about two weeks and I had to deal with the prognosis upon awakening from the coma that a full recovery just wasn’t in the cards,” he said. “But after a lot of hard work and wonderful rehabilitation, I had a full and complete recovery. And in return for that recovery, I promised myself that i would spend the rest of my life doing everything I could to end DWI.”
Benvenisti asked MADD if he could become a member and was welcomed with open arms. He now serves on the organization’s state and national boards. He also became an attorney representing personal injury victims, many who are victims of DWI. “I file lawsuits against the drunk drivers and those who serve them,” he said.
According to Benvenisti, New Jersey’s drunk driving laws are tough, but they always need to get tougher. The criminal laws are clear, he said. If a person is convicted of drunk driving with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent, they will lose their license for a period of time, pay a fine and possibly go to jail. In 2010, the law was revised in honor of a teenager who was killed by a repeat drunk driver while riding his bike.
“That law says that if you are convicted of DWI and your blood alcohol content is 0.15 percent — which is almost twice the legal limit — that you’re going to have an ignition interlock device put in your car when you do get your license back,” Benvenisti said. “And an ignition interlock device is essentially a breathalyzer that’s attached to your steering wheel and the car will not start if there’s a sufficient amount of alcohol in your system.”
There was an effort to require the ignition interlock system for all those convicted of DWI, but that did not materialize. Benvenisti said lawmakers are trying to come up with better measures to make New Jersey roadways safer.
“States throughout the country that have good ignition interlock devices in place, their DWI fatalities have literally been cut in half so we already know that this device saves lives. We know this device prevents accidents,” Benvenisti said. “And the CDC has determined that re-arrest rates … have gone down by almost 70 percent throughout the country. So this is really a wonderful piece of technology to incorporate into the law.”
New Jersey has a social host law, which means individuals who throw parties with alcohol can be held liable for damages. “The distinction in New Jersey is whether or not the person who is alleged to have consumed the alcohol is of legal drinking age, 21 and older, or under the age of 21,” Benvenisti said. “In New Jersey, if it’s alleged that a social host, a homeowner, allowed alcohol to be consumed by someone who’s under the age of 21 and something goes wrong — there’s an injury, there’s an accident, there’s property damage — that social host will be liable in money damages and the law says for anything which reasonably could have been expected to have occurred under these circumstances.”
Benvenisti said the host faces liability for not only a third party who is injured, but will also be liable for injuries to the underage drunk driver.
July 4 and the surrounding weekend is the biggest holiday for DWI deaths throughout the country, according to Benvenisti. “In New Jersey, there was over 150 deaths in one year from drinking and driving. Throughout the country on Fourth of July weekends there’s over 150 deaths from drinking and driving, which is just horrible,” he said.